Self-Worth, not Stuff, Should be Welfare’s Goal

The classic holiday film A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) highlights the tension between holiday materialism and true happiness that’s seen nearly everywhere this time of year. In the movie, Snoopy competes in a Christmas display contest and comically overloads his doghouse with all the holiday bells and whistles he can find.

In his obsession to win the cash prize, Snoopy loses sight of the true meaning of Christmas. Charlie Brown’s reaction is classic: “My own dog, gone commercial. I can’t stand it!”

The scene remains relevant 50 years later because the conflict between seeking more stuff and finding true well-being has only grown more obvious with each passing year.

In the movies, values like hope, joy, and peace ultimately triumph over materialism. Unfortunately, government has yet to grasp that stuff alone doesn’t bring lasting happiness. Like Snoopy, elected officials seem to think more is better, even if values must be sacrificed in the process.

This is particularly apparent in state government’s attempts to care for the most vulnerable in Pennsylvania.

The commonwealth’s welfare system focuses on giving people stuff instead of self-worth. Rather than helping individuals achieve their goals, the $36 billion system aims to guarantee physical comfort at the expense of encouraging long-term independence. For those determined to make a better life, this creates hurdles, not opportunity.

Michael understands this firsthand.

A former Commonwealth Foundation intern, Michael is disabled and collects Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a form of welfare. SSI is a rapidly growing program that gives benefits to children and adults with disabilities. In 1990, SSI beneficiaries numbered 4.8 million. Today, that number is 8.4 million.

Children approved for SSI are often encouraged to apply for adult SSI when they reach 18. As a result, most of these children end up dependent on subsistence benefits, with little hope and few ambitions.

As Michael enters the workforce, he’s found this system is more of a hindrance than a help.

For example, Michael needs minor adaptations to a vehicle so he can drive to work wherever he can find a job. Because he lives in Philadelphia, he can’t get this help. Why? The welfare rules require him to depend on public transportation as long as he lives in the “Philadelphia zone.” Far from helping Michael, the system encourages him to remain dependent.

Despite rules that make it difficult for Michael to leave his SSI benefits behind, he’s determined to make the necessary sacrifices. Unfortunately, many lack the confidence or support to do the same in pursuit of a brighter future.

Consider, for example, parents who want to gain independence but struggle to care for their children. Under the current system, a parent can lose over $100 per week in childcare subsidies simply for earning one more dollar in income. How tragic that parents must choose between self-sufficiency and putting food on the table for their children.

This is not the way to help families.

A reform under consideration in Harrisburg would ease this “benefits cliff” and allow for the gradual decline of subsidies. This way, parents would be encouraged to keep working without fearing the sudden loss of benefits for their children.  

What better way to truly care for our neighbors than by assisting them in meeting their immediate needs while helping them gain independence? What better way to help Michael and others like him than to empower them to create a future on their own terms?

Today, Pennsylvania spends 40 percent of its General Fund on welfare programs, and welfare consumes 75 percent of the funding that comes from Washington D.C. Yet, for all of these dollars, there is little talk about how many Pennsylvanians gained work, saw their wages rise, or improved their health. These are the things that bring lasting comfort and joy.

A system that simply doles out stuff and slashes aid at the first sign of independence is not true welfare because it does nothing to advance long-term health and happiness. Instead, our system should value education, innovation, and work.

Just as Snoopy’s pursuit of stuff troubled Charlie Brown, our welfare system’s material focus should concern all of us.

More than mere subsistence, we can help restore dignity, self-worth, and independence to our fellow Pennsylvanians.

Now that would be true charity.

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Elizabeth Stelle is director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation (, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.