Tag Archives: Happiness

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.

“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”.


“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.