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LETTER: For many, welfare offer better benefits than working

To the Editor:

We know the welfare system is faulted, and we each have our own reasons or experiences for knowing it.  Mine began 50 years ago.  I was working weekends digging bloodworms.

A digger I occasionally saw on the mud flats told several of us an unusual story. He and his wife had amicably divorced and his only further obligation to her was the child support he paid for his two children.  He told us about a string of strange coincidences.

The woman he was seeing (living with) was also divorced, she also had two small children and by the strangest coincidence of all, her former husband was the new man in his ex-wife’s life. Both women were receiving Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC).

The two divorces changed the lives of the two families in the following ways: The women had unintentionally swapped mates; the two men, also unintentionally, had swapped families; they were all pleased with the new arrangements; and the standard of living for both families had increased by the exact amount of the AFDC checks. The two men, amicable toward each other, met periodically over coffee to pass each other child-support receipts, but no money.

Whenever I think about this, and I frequently do, I see it as government producing unintended consequences by unintentionally encouraging parents to divorce, to find another partner (wife-swapping), actually subsidizing them to do so and especially encouraging them not to re-marry. Marriage, of course, devalues the new relationships because it requires living on less because of the loss of the welfare benefits.

My second insight was a decade later when a former co-worker, then living in Massachusetts and working directly or indirectly for the federal government, told me about his job. He worked in a program that sought to encourage women to leave welfare by training them for needed occupations in the work force.

He described a recent candidate: she was personable, presentable and bright, certainly bright enough to learn the skills necessary to work in an office. They trained her, she excelled; they found an opening for her, she was hired. He and his co-workers were thrilled; they had demonstrated that their program was successful, that their own employment was worthwhile and that both should continue because they were reducing the number of welfare recipients while contributing to the work-force and most importantly, to the number of taxpayers.

But, the woman, their star example, ended her employment after only a few weeks.

He and his co-workers, the ones who previously bragged about their part in what they had earlier seen as a success, were disappointed and no longer bragged about it. He and another key-worker in the department found an opportunity to interview her and bluntly asked why she had left employment that clearly paid more than she had previously received for welfare.

Still personable, presentable and perhaps now even a little brighter because of her recent work experience, she explained her reasons. After one or two paydays, she did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and discovered that: after taxes and other withholdings and after transportation costs, the extra cost for clothing, the cost for lunch and the cost for someone to watch her children for the couple of hours they weren’t in school, she was only receiving a few dollars more than she had received on welfare.

She summarized the entire situation by explaining that the very few extra dollars she received for working wasn’t worth all the time she had to spend away from her children.

In the time that has passed since then, welfare benefits have been made more attractive. I heard recently that welfare recipients are now entitled to a free cell phone. There were several years when my wife and I couldn’t afford a phone and managed without; now, it’s apparently become a necessity.

I hear there are fewer marriages and more divorces, I hear that more children are born without legitimate parents and I hear that more people are on welfare. And as long as welfare provides a secure living, I can’t see anyone willingly exchanging it for work.

People, if allowed to, will act in their own best interests. For many, welfare is in their best interests. For those individuals struggling to make a living and only intermittently successful, welfare is an attractive choice. For those that have chosen welfare, leaving it would be impractical and unlikely—unless they are abruptly surprised by a $40,000 job offer.

Welfare, as an alternative to working, isn’t a good option for either individuals or for society. If it is left alone (by us), politicians will enhance and continue to support it and society will be the worse for it.

Perhaps a welfare system could be crafted to compassionately provide temporary help to those temporarily in need, and perhaps its requirements could be crafted to prevent its abuse. But this, in addition to a necessary rare ingenuity, would necessitate removing vote-seeking politicians from the process.

The only viable and simple alternative I can presently foresee is that we should limit the eligibility of public welfare to a period of three years. Of course, there would still be non-government welfare available such as the Salvation Army, which will not have any time limitations and, by its hands-on nature, be less subject to abuse.

I fault both major political parties in the creation and maintenance of the welfare problem, and I can’t believe either party is either able or willing to correct their mistakes and craft a viable system.  But this is the season, and the only time, when party politicians are intensely interested in citizens and when they at least pretend to be interested in their constituent’s opinions.

And, when smiling, they come knocking upon my door, I will ask each of them if they will vote to support a bill to limit welfare benefits to a period of three years. Our state already has a sufficient quantity of recipients; we shouldn’t vigorously compete with other states for even more.

If there are welfare candidates out there shopping around for a place to nest and they want to stay on welfare for a long time, let them be attracted to a state that offers five years. If those politicians, after election, don’t vote for the three-year limit or if they vote in an unrecorded vote, I won’t vote for them in the next election.

Dick Sabine


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