by Professor Cody Pogue
I had an interesting conversation with someone recently who asked why I, as a workaholic who does almost nothing other than work, supports welfare. I think its a valid question.
Short answer: I want to live in a world where people value education, where crime and poverty are low, and where science, the arts, and the humanities are pushing progress forward. To have that world tomorrow, we must make sure every child has access to safe housing, proper nutrition, good educational programs, and at least one loving parent at home as much as possible, today.
Now for the long answer.
What we would identify as "welfare" began in 1935 as a program to help single mothers. The thought at the time was that women shouldn't work, so if the man died (left or went to prison), the government needed to step in and support her so she could run the household and raise the kids. The thought was that if she didn't stay home with the children, the children would grow up missing something. They felt it was essential to provide monetary support to single women in order to make sure they didn't have to work. This was supported by both liberals and conservatives and they were more than happy to pay a little extra in taxes to make this happen.
From 1935 to the present, welfare programs have gone through many iterations, but when people talk about welfare today, they are usually talking about a program put in place in 1996 called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
Most people know that TANF grants cash benefits to poor people. What they often don't know is that it can also provide child care assistance (so single parents have someone to watch their children while they work), funding to help people find jobs, and other things that might help decrease poverty and help children (In Texas, for example, a large portion of TANF funding goes to Child Protective Services).
What many people also do not know is that there are requirements to get assistance through TANF. It is only granted to parents (or grandparents with legal custody) who have children under the age of 18 and have limited or no incomes, or to "child-only families" (in instances where parents are physically unable to work either due to disability, immigration status, or other factors). To qualify for TANF, the family income must be extremely low (less than $268 per month for a family of 5). Finally, for a family with an adult to qualify, the adult must train for a job and prove they are actively looking for work, follow all child support laws not quit, a job, not abuse alcohol or drugs, take parenting skills classes, vaccinate their children, and make sure their children are going to school. There is also a substantive amount of paperwork and meetings involved. It is not easy.
For those people who do qualify for TANF, how much assistance they can receive depends on how many adults and how many children are living there. For example, if it is just one adult and one child, the maximum payment would be $255 per month. For a single parent with 4 kids, the payment would be $394 per month. With that money, they would be able to purchase limited items such as food, clothing, utilities, transportation, and medical supplies.
The next question often asked is "who is on TANF"? Half of the families have only one child, and 85.7% of adults are women (mostly single women). 56% are single-parent families and 38% are child-only families. Families also tend to have young children. 56% have a child under the age of 6 and 12% have an infant. Only 15% have a child of 13 or older and only 7% have 4 or more children. Of child recipients, the greatest number are Hispanics, but of adult welfare recipients, the greatest number are white.
In short, welfare is a program designed to help children and single parents. In rare cases, it also helps parents of 2 adult households who are in drastic need as well.
I strongly believe the best thing we can do to create a positive future is to make sure we educate the next generation to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, we have data showing that middle class and wealthy students do better than poor students. There are numerous explanations for this. We know that people tend to not focus on abstract principles like math and reading when they are hungry. We also know that students who have less access to an adult at home are more likely to act out in school and less likely to understand ideas and concepts. This research tells us that, even with the best possible educational programs, we are leaving our children behind if they do not have adequate parenting, housing, and nutrition. Providing single mothers with an extra $255-$390 per month can go part of the way toward making sure those children have access to that and do better in school. It's not enough, but it helps.
Some will say, "But what about those who cheat the system?". Okay, what about those who go through all of the trouble of filling out the paperwork, going through the bureaucracy, proving they are looking for a job, taking the parenting classes, and going through the job training programs in order to get $300 more a month? There will always be a few of those people out there, but is it worth taking that little extra away from those single parents struggling to raise their children just to punish those people?
You say, "but we shouldn't reward people who are too lazy to work." I get that, but most people on welfare are single parents with young children. How do you suppose they take care of their kids? Also, we know that having a parent, or adult, around and giving them attention at those young ages plays a big role in what kind of adult they will become. If we don't pay to let mothers stay home with their children today, we will more than makeup, for it in education costs once they become difficult students in school or in criminal justice costs later in life.
Some will say, "Why can't we do more to catch people abusing the system?". I understand but remember that we are talking about a limited group of people who are not getting that much. How many investigators do we need to hire and pay $40,000 a year to in order to catch the few folks doing this? How much money are we willing to lose? As horrible as it is that someone would cheat the system, is it really worth it to spend that much of our money going after them when they are taking so little?
I get it. Nobody likes paying taxes. Even fewer people like paying something while knowing that someone else might be getting something for free. Its human nature to hate the idea of someone getting something for free while we are not. Here is what we are getting, though. We are getting to live in a world where mothers spend a little more time with their kids, which leads to the kids being better in school, which leads to these kids not only being less likely to commit crimes as adults but more likely to grow up and to contribute positively to the future. They may serve bravely in our nation's military, they may cure a disease that would have killed us, they may be a police officer or firefighter or engineer or teacher that makes the world a better place. They might be future Presidents of the United States.
Are you really that outraged about a single parent getting a couple extra hundred dollars a month? They knew this was a good policy, and gave so much more to those single parents, back in the 50s and 60s (those years so many people today refer to as "the good old days"). I think you know it is a good policy, as well. Just put aside that human nature that wants to be mad about someone getting something for free and ask what is best for our future. That will lead you in the right direction.