My co-author Phil Harvey and I wrote our recently-released book, The Human Cost of Welfare, How the System Hurts the People it’s Supposed to Help, because we believe that Americans are entitled to pursue happiness and that the pursuit of happiness requires work. Sadly, our welfare state undermines participation in the workforce by making work a risk instead of a reward. Those contemplating the leap from welfare dependency to participation in the workforce often find that the value of their benefits outweigh any job they could obtain, and so they stay in poverty, dependent on benefits.
As a result, our welfare programs trap people in a cycle of poverty that is not just expensive from a fiscal standpoint, but more importantly from a personal, emotional standpoint. Robbing people of the dignity of working, participating in their communities, supporting their families, and becoming independent, our welfare programs interfere with the pursuit of happiness.
The war on poverty has been lost, and has become a war on the poor, and a war on work. Means-tested welfare programs now consume almost a quarter of the federal budget, and more than a quarter of all Americans are enrolled in at least one welfare program. And yet our poverty rate remains stubbornly high at 15 percent. Meanwhile the labor participation rate continues to drop, with just 63 percent of able-bodied adults in the workforce, and dependence on welfare programs continues to grow.
In our book we examine federal means-tested welfare programs from a fiscal perspective, providing policy analysis on each program – how much they cost, how they were designed, and how they are administered. We then go on to share our stories from the road. I traveled around the country interviewing people on welfare, and many of my interviews are included in the book. When you read about food stamps, for example, you don’t just hear how much they are worth, you hear about how their use and misuse can damage the lives of the people who depend on them.
The most important thing I learned on the road is that Americans want to work. They do not want to be on welfare. But the system forms a trap. People realize that they would be better off working, but feel it is too risky to go to work and lose their benefits. Dora, in Augusta, Ga., put it this way: “I always thought I’d be part of that American Dream. Have the house, the kids, the van, the job, be a part of that dream. But now I’m just surviving. Not living. Just surviving.” This sentiment was repeated time and again – the sense that somehow life was passing them by, leaving them dependent on government programs instead of on a personal path to success.
We hope that our book will get into the hands of policymakers who will consider the plight of the poor in their policy prescriptions. Our goal is to expose the emotional toll paid by those who depend on these programs, and share our suggestions on how to improve them. There are many solutions included in our book, both adjustments to current programs and suggestions for new ones, all geared toward getting the poor into the workforce and on the path to pursuing happiness. Work should always be more valuable than not working, and we believe that anyone willing to work full-time should be able to earn enough to get themselves up and out of poverty. We therefore include a plan to ensure that wages are enhanced for anyone willing to go to work.
This book will impact the bigger political conversation about how best to help the poor. After all, the poor are no different from anyone else; they simply have less money. We should care enough about their happiness to take steps to ensure that federal programs targeted towards them are not keeping them in poverty, but rather helping them get out of poverty. As one woman I interviewed put it, “Give us programs that help us get out of poverty, not programs that keep us stuck in poverty.”
Photo by Goran Necin
Photo by Lexie Stevenson
Lisa Conyers is Director of Policy Studies for the DKT Liberty Project, where she works on topics including welfare, inequality, and civil liberties. Also a consultant and ghostwriter who focuses on economics, sociology, and public policy issues, she has contributed to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Free Inquiry and Huffington Post. She recently served on the Kemp Foundation’s Advisory Council for the Forum on Expanding Opportunity. She is a contributing author for Self-Control vs. Government Control, an Atlas Network anthology of essays on the subject of self-governance. She holds an undergraduate degree in American Studies from George Mason University, a Masters degree in Management from the University of Maryland, and is a certified paralegal.