From Welfare to Wellbeing?

08/14/2011 03:03 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2011

In response to my article "America's Not Faring Well on Welfare", a few commentators noted that I had identified a problem and not offered any solutions. I work within a word limit so I hope I'll be forgiven for not solving all of the problems of America's welfare system in a single article.

In any case, this follow-up piece presents a few practical ideas for improving the delivery of welfare and welfare services (in their broadest sense).

The suggestions are motivated by the central claim of my earlier article:

Government-administered redistribution for welfare manifests the assumption that a society's response to hardship is independent of its causes, and, in particular, the choices that have led to it. Since the mechanism is so unconcerned with causes, it is little wonder that we have not been able to identify and correct them. With all the problems of our clumsy governmental mechanism of social protection, we should expect that individuals learn all of the lessons that we are teaching them in a kind of anti-Pavlov's-dogs phenomenon: that the link between actions and consequences is essentially unimportant to how society will treat individuals, who owe nothing, even gratitude, to those who fund others in their times of need. That, of course is the definition of the entitlement mentality.

... and by the quote from Daniel Hannan,

What happens as welfare expands is that private morality is nationalized. The bonds that used to tie individuals together are frayed.

I am an observer of society -- not an expert on public policy, so please treat the following as a basis for discussion and not definitive solutions.

1) Any welfare for working adults should be in return for some contribution to society, whose other members are providing the help. Rather than mailing welfare checks without condition, government should pay a minimum -- or some other agreed upon -- wage for work done. These jobs can be specified and administered by local communities, perhaps counties or cities, and should target the betterment of those communities and the lives of their citizens. The welfare recipient should collect the check at the place of work. If local communities cannot find enough useful tasks to occupy their citizens (hard to imagine), then the federal government can also supply work (such as was done under FDR in the development of the national parks in decades gone by). The purpose is six-fold: 1) to develop a culture of reciprocity; 2) to enable those not employed in the private sector to experience the pride and sense of control that come with doing a fair day's work for a fair day's pay; 3) to enable adults to develop skills that enable them more easily to find jobs in the private sector (and thereby come off the welfare rolls); 4) reduce crime rates in poor communities; 6) to improve the mental health of recipients, and 6) (and most importantly) ensure that children of parents who are receiving assistance learn the link between effort and reward.

2) All assistance should be tapered in a manner that ensures that it always makes financial sense to take a job. The UK has suffered hugely from the fact that the withdrawal of benefits amounts to an effective tax of 96% in some cases on the first pounds of income earned from work, making the decision for welfare recipients to get a job an irrational one. The USA is already ahead on this one, following the work done by Clinton and the Republican congress to develop workfare rather than welfare.

3) Although I would prefer no such thing existed (see 1 above), any continuous public assistance (such as Section-8 housing) that is not provided in exchange for work done or a local contribution should be temporary and transitionary -- a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Therefore, a time limit should be placed on the receipt of such benefits. For example, allow a person to use state-supplied housing for a maximum of five years during their productive years. This period could be reduced over a generation.

4) Housing assistance could be given conditional on attendance of a school to learn a trade. Other recipients of unemployment benefits could perhaps earn their wage by providing required help/tuition etc.

5) Single stay-at-home mothers could earn their financial assistance by working in day cares and after school programs for their own children and those of working single mothers, all of whose children could be given free places. (Training may be necessary.)

6) If federal employees need to be drug-tested, then recipients of government-provided help should be too. There is a duty of reciprocity to the providers of help (tax payers) both not to abuse the largess and not to be seen to be abusing it. Of course, if someone does not want to be drug-tested, they are free not to take the help offered.

7) Criminalize welfare abuse. I know someone who has a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for a rent of $300 subsidized by NY state taxpayers. She rents out one of the rooms for $900, making a profit of $600. She has been reported to the authorities four times for this illegal practice, but has not been investigated: this may be something to do with the fact that the communities police themselves and her mother works in the office that handles complaints.

8) Entire buildings of public (Section 8) housing whose residents are mostly on welfare ("the projects") produce much poorer educational and social outcomes for children than those of children whose parents receive the same welfare and housing assistance but do not live in welfare-dominated buildings or communities. "Affordable housing" schemes, where developers agree to price for sale or rent a proportion of apartments in new buildings below market rates, are already proving. excellent alternatives to "the projects," which are more likely to breed an entitlement culture. Those who receive tax-payer-funded housing should be located with this in mind. No new "projects" should be built, and those that exist should be phased out by attrition as their current residents live out their specified number of years.

9) Abolish food stamps, but distribute nutritional food from a location that is run by people who are also on the workfare program described here. If we must have food stamps, do not allow them to be used to buy goods of zero or minimal nutritional value, and allow them only to be used within the state in which they are issued. If I cannot afford healthcare, and so avoid Twinkies and soda to ensure I remain healthy, I'll be darned if I am paying for your Twinkies and soda that turn you into a diabetic, resulting in my subsequently paying taxes (or increased insurance premiums) to cover your medical care. (This is another application of the principles of reciprocity and individual responsibility.)

10) Push as much of the administering of welfare services as possible down to the states, and then counties and then cities. Consider a mechanism for the formation of local organizations to bid for, and if successful, take over, the delivery of welfare-related public services in their local community using funds currently spent by the local, state or federal government to deliver that service. These organizations could be existing charities or even a new type of mutual institution, to be formed by those already skilled in providing the service, and perhaps even the current recipients of that service. Successful bids would result in the allocation of funds to the organization and the state's stepping back. Such organizations may be few and far between at first, but they will allow the creativity and knowledge of passionate, experienced public workers with a personal stake in the community to be brought to bear on the welfare of their neighbors in a way that is more flexible and tailored than a one-size-fits-all implementation by government.

11) While recognizing that some services may be targeted only at children, ensure that all programs that are available to their parents are available to non-parents: in some parts of the country, the incentives to become pregnant to receive help (especially medical or therapeutic) that the same person could otherwise not afford, are huge. A responsible decision not to have children should not be penalized by requiring those who have made the decision to subsidize the often less responsible choices of others.

12) End the drug war. Much of the drug-crime that destroys the lives of those on welfare, and worst of all, affects their children, is a function not of the taking of drugs by those who wish to, but of the criminalization of drug use, which gives criminal elements (gangs etc.) power and status in communities where drugs would otherwise be privately and "safely" used. Moreover, criminalization contributes to high prices of drugs, which contribute to the property crime by those who wish to raise money to pay for their habit, and to the glorification of those who trade in drugs, who are often become role-models for children who have no other male figure in their lives. On the other hand, decriminalization could provide revenue for states and counties, and support regulation that is much less expensive than the policing currently required to deal with drug-related crime.

To reiterate, the welfare system is far from the only systemic problem that America faces, and welfare reform should be just part of a broader reform that ends our systemic transference of wealth to the corporate financial class by the socializing of losses in the financial system while huge profits are enjoyed privately. For more on that, please see my other articles.

The suggestions I have made above don't represent my ideal world as much as "a step in the right direction" from where we are today. I welcome all of your constructive ideas and criticisms in the comments.

(If you are interested in these ideas and others I've written about , and can get to the University of Colorado in Boulder, visit the Blue Republican page on Facebook for updates about upcoming seminars there.)