27 February 2012

Looking at Social Programs Vs. Entitlements

The following post originally appears on the Huffington Post. I wade a bit into domestic policy and poverty. Something that I do not do often is try to push a topic a bit forward to spark conversation. In terms of experience, this is an area where I have more significant understanding having worked on the side as a teacher and an AmeriCorps program manager. I would love to hear your thoughts.

The present political climate in the United States has led to a full assault on social programs, demeaned as "entitlements" by opponents. The race for the Republican nominee has become a place to beat up on social programs. Newt Gingrich has gone on to call President Obama "the best food-stamp president in American history."

Critics are posing "entitlements" as an obstacle to a balanced budget that can and should be removed. They point to data that direct payments to individuals are up by 32% since 2009. More people are collecting unemployment and participation in food stamps have increased.

In the critics' narrative, the increase in social programs is illustrative of a federal government run amok. An unchecked government is spending without care and damaging generations to come, argue pundits on the radio and airwaves.

Conveniently, the rise in unemployment and general financial strain on Americans precipitated by the bursting of the housing bubble and 2008 financial crisis is ignored. The reason more people are using social programs is because they are in need of assistance.

Bill Ayres, co-founder of WhyHunger, spoke about the struggle faced by many Americans, "Recently, I had a call on my radio show from a woman who raised four kids and had to work a couple of jobs in order to get by. We do believe in hard work, but we do not respect and reward certain kinds of work. If people work hard they should be able to make it."

Ayres argues that the problem has less to do with unemployment than poor wages. According to him, more than two-thirds of Americans who are minimum wage workers are adults. The myth that minimum wage is generally the work of teenagers does not hold up. Of those adults, 40% are the sole support of their family.

People are working, but like the women who called into Ayres's show, they are not making enough to get by. Social programs provide a support for these millions of Americans to have the opportunity to provide for themselves. "All these federal programs are not there to allow people to not do anything. They are there to support people in low wage jobs."

Empowering people to get out of poverty will take a multi-faceted approach. For Ayres and WhyHunger, the way to achieve empowerment is through self-sufficiency. This includes direct services and the provision of resources. By calling the hunger hotline (1.886.3hungry) people can access an information line on how to get emergency meals or enroll in government programs like the school lunch program for children and SNAP for families.

Such resources support hard working Americans in need of support so that they can eventually provide for their families. Rather than replacing work, social benefit programs provide support, explained Ayres. "I would love it if we didn't have to have food stamps and all these other programs," he said, but underemployment does not allow this reality to exist quite yet.

A solution that Ayres offers is for a gradual increase in the minimum wage. After that point, it will need to be indexed against inflation to reflect changes over time. The next step will be do alter the way that education is structured. "We have reduced the opportunity for hard working people to go to school. Everyone should have access to the type of continuing education that will allow them to get the job that they need to make a living," he said.

Ayres shows that the government programs are not a solution unto themselves. When shaped correctly, they can provide a hand up rather than create dependencies. Millions of Americans have been hit hard by the economic downturn and are working hard to escape the trap of poverty. Mischaracterizing social welfare programs makes it hard to adequately understand and address these problems. Only by understanding how they support hard working Americans can meaningful discussions about how to improve social welfare programs begin.