According to the U.S. Census Bureau over 43.6 million people in the United States lived in poverty in 2009. That was 14.3 percent of the population. The Census Bureau’s statistics are available here. How do we put an end to this?
The current federal programs dealing with poverty are the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) commonly known as the Food Stamp Program. The problem with TANF, which replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, is that there is a maximum of 60 months of benefits that one can receive in one’s lifetime. Although TANF has resulted in significant drops in people receiving cash aid since its enactment, the poverty rate has remained unchanged.
Although some states impose the 60 month limit on the adult portion of the aid only, the Census Bureau has 20.7 percent of children in the United States living in poverty in 2009, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 14.7 percent of U.S. households as food insecure during at least part of that same year. TANF is designed to get people off of welfare by a kind of compulsion. It sets a limit on the period of time one can receive aid under the program, thus forcing recipients out onto the job market. Superficially, it may seem that the concept is well founded, since it prevents people from refusing to work while collecting welfare benefits indefinitely. Unfortunately, our economic system is such that there are always more potential employees than there are available jobs. That is why there is always some unemployment. Thus it is not accurate to say that those who are unemployed could change their status if they chose to do so. Unemployment is built into the structure of our economic system.
Another consideration that doesn’t get a lot of air time these days is the situation of single mothers. Whereas at first blush it may appear that getting these women into jobs is important, we have to remember that finding daycare for their children is going to be an issue. Moreover, we need to ask the question of whether it is better for the children to be at home with their mothers or in institutionalized daycare. Our instincts answer the question for us. In conjunction with providing aid to single mothers, additional methods for discovering and obtaining child support from men who father children then abscond need to be looked at seriously. There is no suitable apology to justify the behavior of such men, and the seared condition of their consciences renders irrefutable the argument for penalties severe enough to provide a serious disincentive.
Poverty is defined in terms of household income. Households that make less than a threshold amount are considered to be in poverty. The poverty guidelines set forth by the Department of Health and Human Services can be found here. It thus appears that the poor person are lacking one fundamental thing: money. It follows that we could eliminate poverty by giving those who are in poverty more money. They should be given enough money to bring their households above the amount set in the guidelines. Then they won’t be in poverty anymore.
This idea has been called a Guaranteed Minimum Income, and has had advocates going all the way back to Thomas Paine. The benefit of a program like this is that it could replace other welfare programs and could involve much less bureaucracy. Fraud would remain a possibility, of course, but there would be no more incentive under this system than the present one for that sort of behavior. (The truth is, dislodging bureaucratic inertia would do much to discover and prosecute fraud regardless of the welfare system used.)
There is always the concern that there will be those of able body who prefer the welfare to working, and so that concern should be addressed. First, the notion that there are massive amounts of human souls trying to avoid work in this way paints a bleaker picture of our species than is accurate. By and large, people are happier when they are being productive in some way, and most people know that about themselves. That’s why unemployment rates go down when more jobs become available. When a person who eschews work is found, this is usually due to the abuse of alcohol, drugs, or both. Lack of education is also a factor. But these societal nemeses can be overcome if the public will to do so can be actualized. In the meantime, history will not be kind to those who would insist that we abandon those who fall prey to these weaknesses.
Secondly, a program of this kind could be structured so as to incentivize work. The poverty level for a family of four under the Health and Human Services guidelines is $22,350. If no one in the family is employed, payments to that family would be $22,351 for the year. But if someone in the family was employed, (or, I would hope, in the case of households headed by single mothers) the amount the family received could be raised by, say, ten percent to $24,586.10, less income received from the employment. In this way people would always do better financially if they worked under the proposed system. This is a program that would be much simpler than the one that is extant. Administering it would certainly cost less, because there would be less need of a massive bureaucracy.
Some suggest that is utopian to anticipate a governmental move in the direction of common sense. Let’s hope they are wrong in this case.