What’s Wrong With This System? Larry Knows.

The best thing about about visiting Seattle’s Tent City #3 is getting to talk to people like “Larry”. He’s the kind of guy you run across at city bus stops and food banks, sometimes talking passionately to passers-by about whatever strikes his fancy, sometimes just talking to himself.  I hope you will take the time to listen to him in the video below – it turns out there’s a wealth of  knowledge inside his gruff exterior. Listen to what he has to say about bouncing benefits, and being kept in poverty by the system – if only our legislators could hear him!

Larry chose not to talk about how he landed at Tent City, or where he came from, but he was comfortable talking about his life since.  He is a longtime fixture in Seattle’s Tent City #3. Single, childless and unemployed, he qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), medical care, the free phone available to people on food stamps (though as you heard he chooses not to use it), and for a daily bus pass on Seattle’s Metrobus system.

As I mentioned in my introductory post about the tent cities, they exist in Seattle through agreements with the city and the churches that host them, and hosts are only allowed to host for three to six months, so the homeless are always on the move. Larry, and most homeless people I met, would prefer more permanent locations on city or state land, but Washington state, like most states, has ordinances preventing permanent homeless encampments on public property.

What this means for the homeless is a complete tear-down of their city every few months, and relocation to another part of the city, where they have to orient themselves to yet another neighborhood with different bus routes, food sources, social services and so on, adding more chaos to already chaotic lives. When Larry talks about asking the homeless what they need, instead of creating yet another committee to study them, this is one of the issues he means.

The most poignant moment in our talk came when he talked about how the system keeps people from getting ahead – he described how through the perverse logic of the system, getting any job means losing all your benefits – even he could see the impetus that creates, to just stay on welfare.  As he so eloquently says, the welfare system would prefer you stay in your donated apartment and eat your donated food, than make any progress towards self sufficiency.

Since embarking on this journey one of the thoughts that keeps popping in to my head is this: if our stated goal is lifting people out of poverty, why is the system actually designed to keep people IN poverty? Why do we cut off benefits the minute recipients make a dime over the poverty line, or whatever the means test is for that benefit? Why don’t we incentivize progress towards self-sufficiency instead?

Everyone I have talked to so far wants to work, and wants to be supporting themselves. Yet everyone is also aware that the minute they make any money they’ll lose their benefits, so they can’t save up for a deposit on an apartment, or to buy a car (which they can’t own anyway), even though those two things would get them on the path to self sufficiency. Even our friend friend knows how ridiculous the system is; and the sad thing is, he’s stuck in it.

New Orleans: Katrina, Isaac, and Disaster Relief

Next on my schedule: Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast – I was looking forward to hearing the southern perspective on poverty and living on the dole. New York had opened my eyes to a level of welfare abuse I was still struggling to wrap my head around, and I was wondering what I would find in a gentler, calmer, and more rural part of the country, though an area with some of the highest poverty rates nationwide.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Isaac, much bigger and meaner than me, called dibs, so my trip ended up being a thirty-six hour layover in New Orleans before catching one of the last flights out before Isaac hit.

It was quite fitting that I ended up in New Orleans as it braced for the coming onslaught, because much of what makes New Orleans the New Orleans it is today is its devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Seven years seems like a long time ago, until you take a walk through the city, as I did, and see all the boarded up houses, all the houses with new siding along the bottom five to ten feet of their foundations, all the piles of rubble and new construction. This city is not now, nor will it ever be in the future, the city it once was. From all accounts, while it is rebuilding, it will carry permanent physical and psychic scars. Some parts of the city remain vacant, piles of rubble slowly being hauled off to dumps, soggy and rotting piles of detritus ample testament to the destruction wreaked when Katrina slammed in.

Talking to residents, especially on that day, knowing that another hurricane would soon descend upon them, you could sense the collective post-traumatic stress disorder, and it made the topic of this project take on a whole new dimension. For many in New Orleans, the hurricane took everything they had, and people who couldn’t fathom circumstances that would lead to ending up on public assistance found themselves completely dependent for the first time in their lives. Unfortunately, for too many this has become a permanent condition.

I met John while he was panhandling on a park bench on the riverside near the French Quarter. John is homeless, and has the kind of life story that will break your heart, and yet he was cheerful, upbeat, and so full of “God blessed me” and “I am so lucky” sentiments I couldn’t help thinking I could learn a lot about counting my blessings if I hung out with him for the day. Never married, John nonetheless had three children; his daughter lives outside the city, and his eldest son is in jail for life because he arranged for his younger brother’s murder in a botched scheme to collect his life insurance money. John himself was shot in the head several years ago, accidentally, during a hunting accident, and his speech remains impaired as a result.

I asked John what he lives on, and he acknowledged that he is on food stamps and has the free phone as well. In addition, there is a vast social service network that exists in New Orleans, and John has a hot meal every night if he wants one, knows where to shower and wash clothes, where he can stash a bag of clothes for a few days, and where to go to get medical care for the indigent. Homelessness in New Orleans is endemic, and vastly increased after Katrina. The number of homeless families is enormous, and on any given day the lines outside shelters and foods banks wrap the block. I had noticed many people sleeping under one of the underpasses in another area of the city, and John confirmed that that particular parking area is a gathering place to sleep at night, and if I went there after dinner had been served at the nearby soup kitchen I would see the whole parking area filled with people camping out for the night.

While talking to John, I couldn’t help thinking what a complicated maze he lives in, and what a challenge it must be to get through each day, and I also wondered how he will fare through Hurricane Isaac, though he seemed to have it all figured out, and knew exactly where he would sit out the storm. As we wrapped up our chat I asked him how he would describe his life, and  with the first sad look I had seen cross his face he looked me in the eye and said “I’m just surviving…just, surviving, that’s all. I’m not living, this isn’t a life…I’m just surviving, ma’am.”

And for me, this is the essence of  the critical, essential distinction that must be made, about what we are talking about when we talk about the role of economic aid, versus economic dependence. I think all Americans would agree that no one should ever have to face disaster alone – we certainly should lend a hand to fellow citizens who find themselves in the dire straits those who survived Katrina found themselves in. But what we should not do is relegate those people to a lifetime on public assistance – what we should do is give them a hand up, NOT a hand out for life. While what happened is god-awful, what it has spawned is much worse, and we must find a way to do better.

Harlem’s Extreme Version of The Welfare State

I met “Danny” and “Keisha” in the Jackie Robinson Park at 145th and Bradhurst, in Harlem, where they were hanging out with Keisha’s four year old daughter, and their nephew, who is two, on their day off from work. Danny works in demolition, Keisha is a dental tech in a dental office in Manhattan. To my surprise, they agreed to talk with me, though both were adamant: “No names, no pictures, no videos!”.

Danny is a tall, lanky, energetic young man, dressed in typical ghetto gear; baggy pants showing boxers, baseball hat on backwards, white undershirt, tattoos, chained wallet – who spent much of the visit alternating between chasing Keisha’s daughter through the playground equipment and sitting and telling stories.

He is gregarious and sassy, in marked contrast to his girlfriend, who is quiet, polite, and sits still as stone on the park bench beside me, considering each answer with care, and seldom showing much emotion beyond a gentle smile. In their early twenties, they both graduated from local high schools and have lived in Harlem their whole lives, though Danny has done some traveling and is interested in the idea of moving elsewhere. Keisha is Harlem through and through, loves New York, has only been across the river to New Jersey a few times – other than that, she has spent her life here in Harlem, and has no interest in moving.

Asked about welfare, they give me the same response I have heard many places this summer – first they say they only get food stamps. Then, they mention that the kids get free meals at school. Then they mention that they have the free cell phones they get for qualifying for welfare. Then they say, “Oh, yeah, I have the Medicaid card”, and then finally, yes, they do live in subsidized housing as a matter of fact.

I can’t tell if it is willful lying, or just a lack of understanding that all these programs are part of a vast entitlement system that subsidizes their entire lives, from cradle to grave. I certainly find myself wondering how many people don’t really consider any of these programs welfare programs. Indeed, Danny and Keisha think they are entitled to them in the true sense of the word entitled: to “Give (someone) a legal right or a just claim to receive or do something.” When asked about each program, their reply is “Well, I need it, I can’t do it on my own, so New York needs to take care of me.” They don’t have any concept of the difference between federal and state and local programs, though they do understand that there is quite a bit of overlap, and some ‘needs’ are met by overlapping offices (housing, for example, can be provided through either HUD (federal) housing vouchers, or through programs provided by the city of New York).

Once we started talking about fraud and abuse in the system, things really got interesting, and this is when I realized that  New Yorkers really do master everything they do, whether it is money making on Wall Street or money taking in the ghetto (though some might argue that both are ‘takings’).  Whereas elsewhere in the country food stamp recipients sell their food stamps for fifty cents on the dollar, here in New York food stamp recipients go to grocery stores, find people with full grocery carts, and negotiate what the buyer will pay for the food stamps, usually seventy cents on the dollar. As Danny said “You a FOOL if you’re paying full price for groceries, lady, when you can get instant 30% off just by using someone’s food stamps! Why would you do that? You stupid?”… Why would I do that? Food for thought!

As for health care, whereas in other parts of the country people hide income and assets to get on medicaid and medicare, here in New York people just pay medicaid card holders to borrow their ID cards, and go to the doctor with other people’s cards, so one medicaid account might be covering medical care for several people. Housing? Well, here in New York people rent out their HUD subsidized housing and take the money and go live elsewhere, in nicer neighborhoods.

You almost feel a grudging respect for these New Yorkers, who have taken gaming the system to the nth degree. I mean, frankly, you have to admire their gumption, right? But  given the population of New York City (eight million people and climbing) and the number of people involved, the cost of their creativity comes at a shockingly high cost to us all.

New York City and Famed Harlem – A Daunting Challenge

If you ever want to experience culture shock without leaving the USA, do what I did next – get on a plane from the sunny, open, blue sky country of Colorado, fly to New York City, and land in the middle of a torrential summer downpour, with traffic stalled, horns blazing, and angry faces everywhere. It is hard to believe the two can exist on the same planet, let alone in the same country.

Once I’d recovered from the change of scenery and culture, I spent a couple of days orienting myself to the city, especially my new neighborhood, Harlem. If Native American tribes think they have cornered the market on unique culture and identity, New Yorkers are worthy competitors. And I say this because it turns out that everything that can be said about what happens in New York City is said because it is New York City.

With a population of over eight million people, more than double the next largest US city (L.A.), New Yorkers have had to learn to survive in ways that the rest of us can’t even imagine – trash collection and food procurement being the most obvious daily challenges, on top of housing and transportation and obtaining even the most rudimentary of services. As Charles Murray noted in his recent book, “Coming Apart”, Manhattan is one notable home of the ‘superzip’ culture, but outside that bubble of wealth live millions of New Yorkers who are barely scraping by.

While Harlem is no longer the crime and crack capital of the city it once was, taxi drivers still balk mightily at delivering passengers there, and I was persistently warned to watch my back, hug my purse, count my change, and hide my house key till I’d scoped the block – and this not only from neighbors on the block, but store keepers and street vendors as well. Stores are secured with bars on the windows and heavy locking gates, and homeless sleep on park benches during the day or wander the streets, some yelling at passerby, others sifting through trash cans for food, and cans and bottles to trade in for cash. There is some gentrification, but there is a long way to go.

I chose a local park with playgrounds to hang out in, in hopes of meeting families with children. Sure enough, the parks had plenty of families hanging out, even during the workday, but I was not particularly successful. Unlike Americans in most places I’ve visited so far, locals here have little interest in talking to strangers, and in fact become fairly agressive if approached.

Starting with the staff at the free local swimming pool at the Jackie Robinson Community center, who insisted I tour the building with an escort, I had a series of rather dispiriting encounters. The escort rushed me through the pool facility in short order and then showed me the door, a middle-aged woman started yelling at me and chased me out of the adjacent park, and a friendly looking family pointedly showed me the ‘Park Rules’ stating only parents can be in the playgrounds, no other adults allowed, indicating I should head out.

I got the message loud and clear: I would need to be creative and agressive to have any chance of talking to people. Finally, after a discouraging couple of days, I came across a family of four willing to talk at length.

“Welfare is the Last Thing I Want for My Child”

“Tammy” and I met at a Safeway in Everett, Washington, a small town an hour north of Seattle, home to one of Boeing’s largest plants and a local military base. When she finished shopping she agreed to sit and enjoy some rare Washington sunshine and tell me her story.

Aside from her prominent lip piercing, Tammy comes across as the small town Missouri girl that she is – shocked and dismayed at the turn her life has taken, and brimming with Midwestern work ethic.

At twenty years old, Tammy has already had more than her fair share of hardship, from homelessness, to spousal abuse, to marriage to a drug addicted male prostitute, to domestic violence from her brother-in-law. She presently lives in a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence, where she can stay for at least the next 30 days, out of the weather and away from the threats of violence. Her husband, the father of her son, has returned to the streets of San Francisco and a life of meth addiction and prostitution.

Listening to Tammy, I was struck by her tenacity; though she claims that she has given up her dreams and simply wants to provide for her son, and would be ‘thrilled’ with a job at McDonalds, underneath that defeated exterior lies the heart of a young woman who would love to have a brighter future, and is not willing to accept that she just can’t get there from here.

Happy, she is not – more than once she burst into tears, only to gather herself together and carry on with her story. Yet what brings out the rage and the anger more than anything is not her past, sad as it has been, but her future, and the fact that she is now dependent on the government, a concept she loathes, not just because of the scorn she feels directed towards her, but the scorn she heaps on herself.

So what do we do with a young mother on welfare, who has a small child to raise and support? For Tammy, the answer is simple: she wants a job, and with it the self satisfaction that comes from providing for herself and her son.

Does TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) help? It could. It gives her cash support, but it only really works if the second component of the program is in place as well – job training and placement, so that she can move off of welfare and into work.

As for food stamps, housing, and medical care, all of them are bureaucracies that create dependencies that Tammy wants to get away from, and she knows that if she just had a job, she could get off of all those programs as well.

I met Tammy the same month that news came out about the Obama administration’s decision to grant waivers to 26 states, easing the work training and placement requirements in the TANF program – the keystone of TANF when it was introduced during the welfare reforms of the 1990s.

I couldn’t help thinking as I listened to Tammy talk that if someone like Tammy could make the connection between work and getting off welfare, and could see the benefits of work training and placement, why can’t our government see the same thing? And why would we gut the one program that seems to be working for young mothers and children nationwide? As Tammy said “The last thing I want is to be dependent on the government”.

 

“Welfare Should be Temporary, Not Permanent”

In Decatur, Georgia I was lucky enough to meet several women who are participating in a work preparation class through their TANF program. The program is administered through a private organization that contracts with the State of Georgia to provide work readiness and job search training for TANF recipients.

By all accounts, the women are getting a lot out of the training and there was an energy in the participants I met that I have not encountered anywhere else in my travels. The women I met were all convinced they would soon be off of welfare and into jobs, and felt they were getting the help and preparation they needed to succeed.

While waiting outside one of the classrooms for the women to get out of class, I heard a roar of laughter, and then an instructor came out, and looking a bit surprised to see me, said “I just gave the women a writing assignment, and the question was “What does it mean to be white?””

Given the fact that everyone I saw and encountered in the program (and in Decatur itself), was either African-American, Latino, or of Asian descent, I thought it was a curious question, apparently designed to encourage the women in the program to think about their own pre-conceptions and biases.

According to the instructor, one of the students had piped up “I’m a strong, powerful black woman, I’m black and I’m proud – I don’t know what white women are like, but that’s what I am!”, which had led to the laughter I’d heard when I arrived.

After class ended, “Connie” was the first woman who agreed to talk to me. As you will hear from her interview, she is a poster child for how TANF can and should work – as a temporary program providing cash assistance and job training and placement for women and children in need. Connie had no experience with welfare prior to losing her last job during the economic downturn. She had always worked, and expected to continue to work all the way until her retirement. Unfortunately, with the recession, and a newborn at home, things were taking longer than expected.

What I found most endearing about Connie was her matter-of-fact approach to her situation. There was no feeling sorry for herself, no giving up and deciding to stay on welfare, no slacking off – Connie is a woman with a mission, and the mission is to get on with her life so she doesn’t have to rely on the government.

So isn’t it better for Connie to have TANF as a temporary, short-term solution that helps her get up and out of welfare, than to have her languishing for years on programs that do nothing to prepare her for a life of independence and self reliance? And if so, then why are we gutting the one program, TANF,  that by all accounts is succeeding in it’s mission of getting people off of cash assistance by making it a short term solution with a workfare requirement?

 

Unintended Consequences – Raising Babies

“Janet” was the second woman I met in the workfare training class in Decatur, Georgia, and by far the cheeriest. Surprisingly honest, she had no compunction about admitting that children had not been on her agenda, and that was she was caught flat-footed when she realized she was going to have to learn to raise kids of her own.

She is a resourceful young woman, though, and by all appearances has the common sense get-up-and-go to work things out, whether it means sharing housing with family and friends to make it work, or participating in training programs to get ready for the workforce.

While there have been women I’ve met along this journey who had more kids than Janet, something about the way she talked about the impact having kids really struck a cord, and reminded me that birth control and family planning are effective ways of empowering women and keeping them from a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

The TANF program insists that one of the goals of TANF is  to prevent and reduce unplanned pregnancies among single young adults, yet a Google search of TANF and Birth Control yields not a single relevant News item, and overall web results show only a smattering of state-level references to the topic.

And yet, as reknowned reproductive health researchers at the Guttmacher Institute note in their 2012 publication on unintended pregnancy, nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and are heavily weighted towards the states with the highest levels of poverty, including Mississippi, which leads the nation in teen pregnancy.

This is not good news, and it is news that could easily be improved with widespread family planning and birth control use. So why the disconnect, and what can we do to fix it? The cost of birth control is miniscule in comparison to the cost of raising a child – what if instead of incentivizing childrearing by increasing TANF, Food Stamp, and housing payments according to family size (currently the practice in every state in the country) we turned that incentive around and incentivized NOT having children? What if we made over-the-counter birth control available using food stamps? What if every school provided thorough family planning education to help end the cycle of unplanned, unwanted pregancies?

I look at Janet, and I see potential energy diverted to childbearing and childrearing that she didn’t plan; how many more Janets  are out there that deserve a chance at a life that revolves around more than childrearing and welfare dependency?

Mom on Disability Wants to Leave a Legacy

“Julie” was my final interview in Decatur, and weeks later I remain deeply touched by her story.

What makes Julie’s story unique is that she is dying, of a rare and incurable disease, with a life expectancy of two to three years. What makes it more unique is the choices she is making with that knowledge in hand. Rather than sitting back and letting fate have its way with her, she is determined to shape her own destiny until the very end. That destiny, for Julie, means achieving what has become her life’s passion and goal: leaving her child with the memory of a mother who worked, and made her way in the world, and provided for her.

It is not going to be an easy road, because her way is blocked by the very system that should be helping her. Because she is on TANF, she is required to participate in workfare full time. But, because she is sick, she cannot work the full time schedule required of her, and there is no flexibility for women like her who want to work, but aren’t healthy enough to work full time. In her case, her physician has indicated that she should be on permanent bed rest.

Due to her illness, she will soon be put on disability (SSI). Once that happens, she will be forbidden from working at all – in fact, her doctor has already insisted that she can’t work, although she desperately wants to, and can do so, on her good days.

And so Julie has come up with by far the most creative use of disability benefits I have ever heard – and something policy-makers should hear about as they ponder the wisdom of SSI’s impediments to working. First, she is going to take business classes at the local college, so she can learn to run a small business. Then, Julie plans to take her disability payments, save as much as she can, and open her own in-home business.

That way, she can work her own hours, thereby insuring that when she isn’t well enough to work she won’t be fired. That way, her child will be able to see her mother working for their future, and hopefully be inspired to be independent herself. And that way, when she leaves the world  and her child behind, she leaves memories of a mom who worked to make their lives better, in the face of truly daunting odds.

While we can be thankful that there is a safety net out there for people like Julie we should also question its efficacy; if she wants to work, shouldn’t our goal be to help her do that, instead of relegating her to her bed?

 

“Strong, Black and Proud” Mom Wants off of Welfare

“Tanya” is a tiny woman, full of energy and drive, who floors me when she announces she is the mother of not one, not two, but five children, with the oldest, at seven, conceived while she was still in high school.

That first child ended her high school career, and she is still trying to finish, by taking classes in preparation for the GED (high school equivalency exam). She is also in a TANF-mandated welfare-to-work program, which she hopes will lead to a full-time job soon. It is clear she has a lot of ambition, if few skills.

Tanya has spent her entire life on welfare, first in her mother’s house and now in her own, and is nearing the end of her state-mandated lifetime allotment of TANF cash benefits. Like her mother, she will still be able to live in her subsidized housing for free, get her utility bills paid for, and her phone, and her transportation, and get food stamps for herself and her family, and Medicaid, but her monthly cash benefit will disappear. We talked about what happens next, and it’s clear that Tanya wants a job so she can support herself and her kids.

When I asked about the fathers of her children, she said that they would rather live the street life, dabbling in crime and getting locked up regularly, than try and straighten out and play a parenting role. She considers it too much of a hassle to get these ‘baby-daddies’, as she calls them, to step up and do their part as the fathers to her kids. Her attitudes towards the fathers of her children, and towards child support in general, mirror attitudes I found across the country, and are troubling for at least two reasons.

The first reason concerns child support – in Tanya’s opinion, since her kids can live on public assistance, she sees no reason for the government to get involved in ‘her business’ and ask her to go after the fathers for child support. In essence, she would rather rely on the state to take care of her kids, than rely on the fathers of her children,  a troubling trend for the children, and an expensive trend for the country.

The second reason concerns putting the fathers of her children on the children’s birth certificates. Often, these young mothers end up aquiescing to the father’s demands not to be named on birth certificates, in exchange for promised under-the-table child support. Predictably, this child support is only paid for a few months, before the fathers disappear. This leaves the children without fathers on their birth certificates, the mothers with no means to collect child support without costly legal battles and DNA testing, and the fathers off the hook, free to continue with their chosen lifestyles.

Tanya’s best hope is the job she dreams about and is in training for; the TANF program she is in has inspired her, and, combined with her pluck and determination, puts her in the best position she has been in so far to reach that goal. Traveling the country this summer, the main theme running through the conversations I had with welfare recipients was this: people want jobs, NOT welfare. So why have so many states now been given the option of gutting the work requirements of TANF? Why remove the only program with a work requirement, when it is clear that work is what people want?

“The Human Cost of Welfare” Introduced on Huffington Post

Authors Philip D. Harvey and Lisa Conyers outline  “The Human Cost of Welfare” on Harvey’s Huffington Post Blog:

A new round of welfare reform may be on the horizon. Sen. Tom Coburn (R/OK) and Rep. Steve Southerland (R/FL) are both raising the issue, and 150 interviews we’ve just done with welfare recipients show why and how the current welfare system needs to be fixed.

To see how welfare recipients view these programs, we asked current and former welfare recipients across the country how they feel about life on government assistance, and about work, and we asked them what happens when they depend on government programs to meet their daily needs.

Some, like Beverly (not her real name) “feel a lot better” once they find a job, any job.

“I had a good job in advertising, but then the recession hit, my job got ‘downsized,’ and I ended up on welfare,” Beverly said. “I had never been on welfare. When I heard that this hotel in Durango was looking for someone to manage their free breakfast and vending machines, I came in to apply. The manager thought I was overqualified but I got the job. It’s a big step down, but now I have a reason to get up in the morning.”

Others, like John in New Orleans, feel caught in the welfare trap. “I’m not living, I’m just surviving.” John said. “I used to work, always worked but now I’m just surviving day on day.”

Replies like these were common among the 150 people we interviewed, including people who felt stuck in welfare, people who had gotten out of the system and back into a job, tribal leaders on Indian reservations, young people in homeless shelters, and older men in cities. While this was not a scientific sample it gave us a profound sense of the nature of America’s welfare programs and how their recipients feel about them and about their lives.

The clearest finding is that some form of work appears to be necessary for a satisfying life. Work involves challenges, and dealing with such challenges lies at the heart of human wellbeing.

At some level, we all know the importance of accomplishing difficult things, of overcoming real obstacles. Picture, for example, the happiness of a child who, after many weeks or months of trying, masters riding a bicycle. The happiness that results from this accomplishment requires the effort that went into it. Closer to home, one of our family members, in the final uncomfortable months of his life, often said “At least I got four kids through college.” That was something he was especially proud of.

Mastering the bicycle, getting your kids through college — these are hard things to do, things requiring skill and persistence, and their mastery is a source of immense satisfaction.

Our evidence indicates that this is the element missing from the lives of those who depend too much on assistance from the government.

Of course, many people who receive government assistance truly need it and their lives might be worse without it. But we repeatedly got the message that people in need want to accomplish things; they want to make a contribution, to have something to point to and say “I did that.”

Clearly, a wealthy nation owes its poorest citizens a decent subsistence. But making poverty comfortable, even modestly comfortable, can create a pattern of dependence and entitlement. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for example, provides cash benefits to the disabled, many of whom are able to work and want to work, at least part-time. But if SSI recipients earn even a trivial amount, the benefit is reduced or eliminated. Such policies trap the recipients in “a cage” according to one man on SSI. The system penalizes both work and saving, two of the things that may provide a path out of poverty.

The successes of the welfare reforms of 1996 are, unfortunately, slowly being eroded under today’s policies, but those successes support the findings of our interviews as they indicate that most people want to work; when given the opportunity and — it must be said — confronted with the requirement to work, they do. “Don’t try to keep us down,” we heard from Rebecca, echoing the views of many. “Create programs that will help us get back up.”

Our present policies are keeping people down and keeping them dependent and they are not happy about it. Welfare policies that reward work (as the Earned Income Tax Credit currently does), are appropriately time-limited, and include access to training will help them get back up.