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LETTER: Transitioning from Welfare to Work

To the Editor:

It’s strange, but the experts, the economists, that should understand the economy, don’t, and even when they are convinced they do, they are unable to agree.  Of course, like broken clocks, some of them and their theories must be right some of the time, but when and which ones?  And, whenever the government interferes, it becomes complicated, sometimes disappointing and sometimes humorous.  This is especially evident regarding work and welfare.

For myself, I find economics too complex to understand and I have to simplify it.  I imagine a remote New England farming community in the 1890s.  In this scene that springs from imagination, cattle graze near large barns; ripening fields of corn race beside their restraining fences until both disappear in the distance.  Powerful farm horses, joined to their companion wagons move at a slow, but familiar pace on unpaved roads that serve to both separate and connect individual farms.  Within my imaginary scene, the farm buildings, the fields, both those cleared and those planted, and the community roads are evidence of work already completed and the preparation for work yet to be acomplished.  The scene, because it’s of my own creation, is always pleasant and always suffused with warm summer sunshine.

Within this economic example, the family farm is the basic unit.  The farm family works, first, to survive, then to prosper.  Farm work never has a barren season, it is always abundant, always exceeds available labor.  Everyone works: the young, the elderly and even the infirm.  They work, because they are expected to, because they have to, because they want to, because they are able to, and because their work, no matter how small, benefits the family.  Any farm family worried for the future may find comfort in working harder.  There is always work that will ensure a better future: there are fields to be cleared, food to be preserved, buildings to be constructed.  On these farms, unemployment is not understood.

This family unit is a wonderful example of an efficient and productive economic system.  Family members are aware of the work to be done; they assign themselves to tasks suitable to their ability.  They work and see both the results and the promise of their labors.  They are confident in their ability to survive and confident the farm will continue to provide its bounty so long as they are willing to work.  Beyond survival, they know and are reassured that through work their modest dreams are attainable.

But, long ago, we left the farms, and the work that was a constant companion, and moved to places where work and its rewards, although compelling, were uncertain.  Through unfortunate experiences, we found that our employers could neither assure us of abundant work, nor a living wage.  Because, the primary concern of farmers, tradesmen and even day laborers is family security, and because we were uneasily dependent upon our employers, unions and governments intervened.  These agents created unemployment and disability insurance, tenure, welfare and even featherbedding.  These interventions, whose original intent was to correct employment problems, instead, created impediments between work and those that would work.

As a society, we have chosen to provide welfare to those in need and to provide it for as long as they are unable to provide for themselves.  The welfare we provide is generous in funding and in health benefits and in comparison to the uncertainties of minimum wage work, remaining on welfare appears as a better choice for a family’s security.  It is unreasonable to expect a welfare family to choose to give up welfare for work that is uncertain, work that doesn’t provide a livable wage, and work that will exclude the family from medical security.  Thus, we have created a society where many of its members are unintentionally encouraged to be unproductive.

There is no easy transition from welfare.  Welfare recipients are unlikely to suddenly land a middle class job.  There may be a college graduate among them, one with marketable skills, one who through unfortunate circumstances found themselves on welfare and who at their earliest opportunity will better themselves.  But, the reality is that most welfare recipients have already been harshly screened by society and most have been found to be only suitable for unskilled work.

If these recipients were family members on one of my imaginary farms of the 1890s, work would be found for them and they would share in their family’s security.  We might take as society’s goal to emulate the farm family.  We might take it as our belief that there is abundant work and continue to believe that, at least until we can no longer find a pothole.  All our members should be encouraged to work and rewarded for doing so.  Since public welfare is a faulty government intervention, it is appropriate that government refine welfare to allow and encourage work.

The mandatory establishment of a minimum wage was intended to ensure that our unskilled labor force could earn a livable wage.  Like so many government ideas, it doesn’t work in practice.  Minimum wage will not produce a livable wage and employers will not pay more than work is worth.  Instead of solving the economic problem by paying low wage earners more in wages, employers will hire fewer people.  Since government, by its policy intends to provide welfare to those that cannot earn a living, it makes better sense to reduce what they receive in welfare and augment whatever they can actually earn by making up the difference to arrive at a livable wage.  If this formula provides a better living than welfare alone, then welfare recipients will find work and so long as they can continually improve their family income, welfare recipients will work themselves out of welfare and become self supporting through their own labor and aided by the augmentation of a government supplement.

This idea may or may not solve our faulted economy, but perhaps it should be tried—just a little at a time or at least until two or more economists can agree it is a good idea.

Dick Sabine



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