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From Welfare to Work: What Americans Are Saying About Government's Role in Helping the Neediest

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How do middle-class Americans feel about the Obama administration's record of emphasizing government programs over job-creation while much of the country still struggles through a bleak economy? That's one of the things YG Network tried to find out this summer as we engaged middle-class swing and Tea Party participants in wide-ranging focus groups throughout the country.

"What we have now [with welfare programs] is hurting people," one YG Network focus group participant in Phoenix told us. A woman from Palm Beach, shared this personal story: "My husband was out of work for three years and if there had been somewhere for him to go and work he would have gladly gone. He wanted to be busy, rather than a just accepting a handout. I wish there was something like that in place."

Given our nation's continued struggle with chronic unemployment and the fact that food stamp enrollment has reached an all-time high of roughly 1 in 6 Americans under President Obama, it's no surprise that we heard about personal, first-hand experiences in each and every one of the focus groups we held.

Across both groups, Tea Party and Swing alike, participants shared the value that government should care for the neediest Americans -- those who are incapable of fending for themselves and those who have fallen on hard times and need a temporary hand as they struggle to achieve self-sufficiency. Participants across both groups also felt, often based on personal experience, that our current system is set up for failure. As the Wall Street Journal reported of our findings, "while there was general consensus among both groups that government should 'care for the needy,' there was similar agreement that those benefits should be limited. Swing voters and tea-party types agreed that any federal assistance should be temporary, and there are widespread concerns that some poor people might be too dependent on the federal safety net."

A participant in the Palm Beach group shared the story of her niece, whose husband "won't take a pay increase because then they would lose their public assistance." Expressing a concern that is shared by many Americans at the prospect of her family becoming part of a permanent welfare class, she wondered: "What kind of mentality is that?" One Swing participant in Minneapolis told us that "[s]hort-term [assistance] is good, but not long-term. It hurts more than it helps." Another said that Americans "should have to work to receive food stamps, with a few exceptions."

Participants across both groups also recognized -- and deeply resented -- that some Americans are "working the system" in order to receive benefits they don't truly need nor deserve. Speaking to the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, one swing participant in our Manassas, Virginia session expressed her concern that "people are taking advantage of the welfare system and it needs to be reformed." A Tea Party participant in Manassas put it this way: "Working the system hurts all the groups. It costs us more money. It hurts us giving it and the really needy."

A real example of this is a 29-year-old California man who can work but doesn't want to. He uses his food stamps to buy things like lobster, and spends his days surfing, drinking, and chasing girls. YG Network highlighted this in a web video this summer.

The feedback gleaned from our focus groups closely matches what we learned from two national polls YG Network carried out earlier this year. For instance, our poll taken this May revealed that 82 percent of Americans -- including 83 percent of moderates, 70 percent of liberal women and 77 percent of liberal men -- agreed that the 3.5 million able-bodied adults with no dependents who receive food stamps risk long-term dependency and should be obligated to work or actively seek employment in exchange for food stamps.

In that same poll, strong majorities also agreed that welfare programs should be available to provide temporary assistance, but the safety net can become a dependency trap by discouraging self-sufficiency and hurting those we intend to help. And in March, another YG Network national poll revealed that, when asked which federal programs should be cut to reduce spending, welfare programs (50 percent) far outweighed the military (27 percent), Social Security (8 percent), and Medicare (7 percent) among those who believe America is at an economic crossroads.

To be clear, the single best way to reduce spending on welfare programs would be to set the stage for strong economic growth -- something the Obama administration has failed to accomplish, or to even focus on convincingly, despite many promises and nearly five years in power. But the president's failures on the single most important issue facing our country are not an excuse to condemn struggling Americans to a sad cycle of dependency, nor to force middle-class taxpayers to pay for it. This is deeply unfair, both to those less-fortunate and in need of help, and to the hard-working taxpayers who foot the bill. That so many on the left are defending this practice under the auspices of "compassion" is even worse.

As YG Network's public-opinion research confirms, Americans of all political persuasions care about our neediest citizens, and broadly agree that government has a legitimate role in providing a temporary safety net that helps people get back on their feet. That is what Washington should provide through common-sense reforms rooted in true compassion and fairness.