By JAMES H. "SMOKEY" SHOTT
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Millions of Americans get some kind of financial support from the federal government. Some of them have earned it (Social Security and retirement recipients), some of them really need it (the poor and disabled), some need it temporarily (like those who can’t find a job in the non-recovering economy) and some don’t really need it, but get it anyway.
The widely reported number of Americans in poverty is 46.2 million, about 15 percent of the population. July’s Household Survey revealed that 11.5 million were unemployed; 2.4 million will work but aren’t actively looking; and 8.2 million wanted full-time work but could only find a part-time job. And the Civilian Labor Force Participation rate was a very low 63.4 percent.
Yet CBS News reported that a survey of 2,000 employers showed one-third of them said lots of jobs go unfilled for three months or more. Many of the roughly three million unfilled jobs are in skilled trades and pay good wages, making one wonder about the current “everybody needs a college education” mania that now grips the country.
Another reason that good jobs go unfilled is that the federal government’s assistance programs make it easy to not work, and frequently pay more than some jobs.
The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, writing in the Los Angeles Times notes that, “Contrary to stereotypes, there is no evidence that people on welfare are lazy. Indeed, surveys of welfare recipients consistently show their desire for a job.” Yet the “U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says less than 42 percent of adult welfare recipients participate in work activities nationwide,” he continued. “Why the contradiction?”
“Perhaps it’s because, while poor people are not lazy, they are not stupid either,” he writes. “If you pay people more not to work than they can earn at a job, many won’t work.”
In looking at federal assistance programs, Mr. Tanner noted that most reports on welfare focus on only a single program, the cash benefit program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But he explained that “focusing on this single program leaves the impression that welfare benefits are quite low, providing a bare, subsistence-level income.” However, most get assistance from more than one of the federal government’s 126 separate programs for low-income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in-kind benefits to individuals.
In order to analyze how the federal assistance programs affect recipients, the Cato Institute created a hypothetical family consisting of a mother with two children, ages 1 and 4, and then calculated the combined total of seven of the most common benefits that the family could receive in all 50 states.
In Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Hampshire and California, that group of seven programs provide benefits worth more than $35,000 a year. The value of the package in a medium-level welfare state is $28,500.
Since welfare benefits are not taxed, to put the benefits issue in perspective the Cato study calculated how much pretax income the family would need to earn in order to provide the same amount as a 40-hour-per-week job. This calculation took federal and state income taxes, earned income tax credits and the child tax credit into account.
The study found that welfare pays more than an $8-an-hour job in 33 states and the District of Columbia, and that in 12 states and the District of Columbia welfare pays more than a $15-an-hour job. And, in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, D.C., welfare pays more than a $20-an-hour job.
Comparing the results with specific jobs, the Cato study found that in California and 38 other states, it pays more than the starting wage for a secretary and in the three most generous states, welfare benefits exceed the entry-level salary for a computer programmer.
While not every welfare recipient gets these seven benefits, many do, and some receive even more than the package used by the Cato study. “Still,” Mr. Tanner concludes, “what is undeniable is that for many recipients in the most generous states — particularly those classified as long-term recipients — welfare pays substantially more than an entry-level job.”
Welfare is supposed to be a temporary thing for most recipients, not a career. Yet in many cases able-bodied men and women do not look for work because they can do better on welfare.
Such a system discourages people from taking responsibility for themselves and their families. It creates a large faction of government dependents; a status that deprives people of self-respect and the pride of accomplishment that results when one succeeds in life because of their own efforts.
Even a low wage job is better than welfare, as it often is only a first step to better jobs. U.S. Census figures show that only 2.6 percent of full-time workers are poor, while 23.9 percent of adults who do not work are poor.
This country became what it once was not by millions depending upon government to feed and clothe them, but by Americans making themselves successful through determination and hard work. That is the goal our welfare system must have.
James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.