Legislation passed by Michigan lawmakers imposes a 48-month lifetime limit on cash payments for welfare recipients. It is a long overdue response to the spiraling costs of public assistance with no strings attached. Generous benefits are too much of the welfare problem to be part of any future solution.
Taxpayers fed up with picking up the tab will applaud the change. Welfare rights advocates complain that it’s a blunt instrument that unfairly targets poor and unemployed mothers. But any serious attempt to help people rise from poverty had to include sanctions against mothers who view welfare as a free ride.
Effective October 1, about 13,000 families, whose payments average $515 a month, will be put on the clock. The mandate applies to all recipients, including those who participate in the state’s Work First program that expires September 30. The saving to the state could exceed $77 million.
Welfare was never intended to be a lifestyle. Generations were never supposed to be dependent on a monthly check. But since the 1960s, America has invested untold billions in cash, food, medical, transportation and housing benefits, which worked out to be more rewarding than taking a minimum wage job. Government’s best efforts at social engineering notwithstanding, some groups proved immune to self-help and resistant to work.
Draconian cuts to Michigan’s generous welfare benefits are also made necessary because of huge increases during the last 40 years in the number of out of wedlock births. These family units have the smallest income; the longest stays in poverty and constitute the heaviest demand for public dollars.
Welfare traps them in a vicious, destructive cycle in which the government is the surrogate father. And because Michigan’s benefits are some of the most pernicious anywhere, many of these families will spend a decade or longer on aid, as will some of their children.
The new drop-dead date isn’t new. The state always had the ability to cut benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. A menu of work programs aimed at ushering welfare moms into productive taxpaying jobs with a future have been on the books for years.
As a practical matter, it was impossible to require anyone to obtain and keep a private-sector job. Welfare administrators could help clients only to the extent they had a desire to find work, or get the job training needed to stay off assistance permanently.
The work “requirement” became politically unenforceable because the state didn’t have the guts to separate mothers with children from benefits. Many recipients simply opted to take the money and stay home.
It is now necessary for recipients to unlearn most, if not all, of what is associated with the welfare entitlement mentality. This severance process, however, will be liberating for some — devastating for others.
Some of the increased welfare demand is attributable to the sour national economy and the bleeding of jobs from urban areas. A large group has voluntarily stopped seeking and do not want the available jobs. Enforcing the obligation to work will be key to reintroducing them to the principles of personal responsibility.
There, too, is a large pocket of recipients with employment handicaps. Some are unemployable because of low literacy and are unable to perform simple quantitative tasks like reading, writing and making change. There is no way they can compete with more attractive job seekers in a down economy.
The Department of Human Services, however, could exempt up to 6,100 cases during the 2012 fiscal year. These exemptions might prevent innocent children unfortunate enough to be in this group of families from being unduly harmed.
A mood swing within the body politic drives the expectation that everyone will assume responsibility for educating and employing themselves and to be responsible parents. For welfare recipients, that means preparing now to survive with dignity a system that will appropriately treat the most needy people with compassion and freeloaders with contempt.