THE BLOG
10/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Welfare Policy, Leg-Up Versus Hand-Out

At some point soon after the very beginning of man, a Neanderthal tripped and fell over a misplaced mammoth bone onto the cave floor. Some of his buddies laughed. Some ignored him. But one of them grunted over and put out his hand. This was the moment we started talking about welfare policy. When the fallen Neanderthal refused to get up, that was the moment we started complaining about it.

Since then, governments around the world have tried, reformed, and tried again with various welfare philosophies. Some prefer the "leg up" method, where aid is a stepping stone to self-sufficiency (the Neanderthal learns how to get up from the cave floor himself, after a little instruction), and others employ the "hand out" method, where welfare is a wall of dependency to lean on in hard times (the Neanderthal has a fake arm installed in his cave to use in case of slippages).

In Germany, the method is one of social karma. If you've put a lot into the system, through work or education, then you can get a lot out of it. France prefers the concept of "mutual responsibility". Sweden puts its money where its mouth is, paying 50 percent of its wages to advocate "social equality". Britain has a bad reputation for giving away too much too easily, and America for giving too little too late.

According to the Budget for Fiscal Year 2008, Historical Tables, the U.S. Spent $354.3 billion on means-tested entitlements in 2006. That figure includes a long list of different types of aid:

"Medicaid, food stamps, family support assistance (AFDC), supplemental security income (SSI), child nutrition programs, refundable portions of earned income tax credits (EITC and HITC) and child tax credit, welfare contingency fund, child care entitlement to States, temporary assistance to needy families, foster care and adoption assistance, State children's health insurance and veterans pensions".

It sounds like a lot of money, services, and philosophies, but how does welfare policy really apply to those in need of help? What does it mean to be living in a "hand-out" versus a "leg-up" system?

Thanks to a helpful calculator on the U.K. Government's welfare website, I can figure out exactly what I would receive if I was unemployed and living in the United Kingdom. Every two weeks, I would pick up a government check for £47.95 (approximately $84) in Jobseekers Allowance. As long as I remained unemployed, I would get a 100 percent reduction on the property fees owed to the government, known as Council Tax, and live rent free in government property. Even if I wanted to work, as long as I pitched in less than 16 hours a week, I would still receive my unemployment benefits.

If I were to add an infant to the mix, not only would I be moved to bigger accommodation (a 2-3 bedroom house), but I would receive £18.80 (approximately $33) a week in Child Benefits and £1393.46 (approximately $2438) a year in Child Tax Credit - more if I had a husband, civil partner or if the child's father was also living in the house, unemployed.

So, I would make a total of £93.54, or $170 a week without working. Or I could supplement that with 16 hours of work and double my income. To top it all off, health care is completely free, including dental care until the age of 19, and then unemployed or low-income families have their bills subsidized by the government.

In the U.K., you don't have to go it alone if you find yourself in financial trouble: The government will act as a safety net. But the biggest downside is that it pays to do nothing. In fact, the way the system works, most single parents wouldn't be able to match their government income if they worked full-time. Not only would they lose time with their children and have to spend their wages on child care, but they wouldn't be able to pay the bills. Working at minimum wage 40 hours a week would provide £30 more income than government welfare benefits. That "extra" income equivalates to one day of child care. The result of this dramatic system flaw is that most mothers, especially single mothers, have to wait until their children are old enough to go to school before they can go back to work.

It's not as easy to find out what benefits you are eligible for in the United States. The questionnaire is more probing for a start; it requires ethnicity, professional experience and marriage history. I also have to tell them whether or not I have ever worked for the government or have end-stage renal disease. And then the pages take ten minutes to load.

Have you run away from home or are thinking about running away from home? Do you need disaster relief funds? Are you a victim of domestic violence, torture or trafficking? It gets harder. One minute you're trying to find out what money the government can give you, and the next you're taking an exam about yourself. I choose "general declining economic conditions" as the reason for not having a job: No, it's nothing to do with September 11th or having my parents killed by a "President declared disaster" (as opposed to a "declared President disaster?"). No, I don't live on a farm, have any family in the military or come from Native American heritage.

Finally, with question 72 complete, I discover that I am eligible for 29 separate sources of welfare. After reviewing the choices, it becomes clear that some of them are not going to work. A competitive grant for research "that joins biology with computer science" for example, is not something I would consider myself "eligible" for. I can get Food Stamps. If I had children, they could get milk on school days and food in the summer. I can line up at certain health centers and try to get medical aid. I can get help with my electricity bill and I might even be able to get a loan. Nowhere in any of this is the government giving me a check. Nowhere are they handing me an income and saying "this one is on us". Nowhere can I depend upon a solid government cash flow while I'm down and out.

That's the very real difference between the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of welfare policy. Britain, which has come to be known as "The Welfare State", is criticized as being too lenient, too ready to hand out money first and ask questions later. The government is the sole welfare provider and charities throw a few pennies into the bucket now and then.

America, on the other hand, forces people to jump through loops even to find out what help is available. There is little unity in the welfare system, which isn't really a system at all but more of a fragmented selection of charities who might receive government grants and incentives to keep them going. The only "umbrella" government welfare system in the U.S. is reserved for people old enough to access social security. Everyone else is encouraged not to rely on their government but rather find their own way.

Both systems have their evils. Ideally, government dependence means national solidarity, just as independence means self-sufficiency. But "dependence" can also mean inescapable reliance, and "independence" can render many people lost and alone.


This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.