Yesterday I wrote a post about the assault on the poor by Congressional Republicans. If you have not read the post I encourage you to do so.
While I resolutely stand against cutting Food Stamps and abolishing the Minimum Wage and the Earned Income Credit, I do think that most government social programs are in need of moderate to drastic reform. In this post I want to suggest some ways that government social programs should be reformed.
Recipients of government assistance should be required to declare ALL of their income before receiving assistance. Astoundingly, in many states, income received from programs like SSI and Food Stamps (which is money given to recipients to buy food) is not considered a part of a person’s income. By excluding certain forms of income, this allows people to get benefits they would not otherwise qualify for.
Recipients of government assistance, if they are not gainfully employed, should be required to work off their benefits. This work should, if at all possible, provide some sort of training for the recipient. The work should not be used as a punishment for being on the government dole.
In the early 1980’s I was the grant administrator for the Village of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, a small lakeside village southwest of Newark. Much of the housing was old and dilapidated, lake cottages that had been converted to year-round housing.
At the time, Buckeye Lake had one of the highest poverty rates in Ohio. I was also the assistant pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake, a church I started with my father-in-law Lee Shope. I primarily worked with the youth in the church and this put me in close contact with poor families and the rampant poverty in Buckeye Lake.
As grant administrator I wore a number of hats. I supervised the litter control program, the building code enforcement program, the community block grant for tearing down abandoned houses, and a pilot workfare program. By supervise I mean I actually was in charge of and worked with the people that were a part of these programs.
The workfare program was a pilot program that required welfare recipients to work off their benefits. I also had community service referrals from the juvenile and county court that were a part of the program.
Every month I had between 50 and 100 program participants working off their benefits or community service hours. The work I provided for them was, for the most part, menial work. We cleaned up roadsides, cleaned up illegal dump sites, mowed abandoned properties, and tore down abandoned, condemned houses.
We tore down over 50 houses during my tenure as grant administrator. I had broad power to condemn abandoned properties. Using the threat of legal action for health and property code violations, most property owners quickly caved and allowed us to tear down their abandoned houses.
I worked closely with the poor of the community as they worked off their hours. Much to my surprise, most of the workers had a decent work ethic. As a right-wing Republican, I thought people on welfare were slackers too lazy to work. My time in Buckeye Lake forced me to realize that the reasons people are unemployed or underemployed are varied and complex.
Yes, there were the shirkers, lazy-ass people who did everything in their power to get out of work. But, they were the exception to the rule. Most of the workers came to work every day, worked off their time, and went home.
Most of the workers were unemployed or underemployed due to a lack of training, age, physical or mental disability, substance abuse, lack of jobs nearby, or lack of reliable transportation. These reasons remain the same today. Most unemployed or underemployed workers want to work. They find, due to the reasons mentioned above, the employment deck stacked against them.
I know this from first-hand experience. I worked my last full-time job in 2004. From the time I was a young teenager until I was 45 years old, I worked a job. Yet, here I am, at the age of 56, pretty much unemployable. I have applied for dozens and dozens of jobs over the years and have been interviewed for many jobs.
When I go to an interview I don’t use my cane or wheelchair. I know that if I walk into the job interview handicapped my chance of getting the job is slim to none. Last year, I was interviewed for a job with Meijer. They were ready to hire me but I had to turn down the job. Why? The job would have required me to stand on my feet eight hours a day, a feat quite impossible for me. Generally, after standing on my feet for more than 30 minutes, I begin to have severe pain in my back and legs and my face, arms, and thighs begin to turn numb.
If my physical handicap is not enough of an impediment, my age is also a problem. While employers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of age, they all do it. As a former employer who has interviewed and hired hundreds of people, a person’s age is always an unspoken consideration. With so many able-bodied younger people to choose from, I don’t blame employers for not hiring someone like me.
In recent years, I have tried to find any kind of work, regardless of how meaningless it is. I now run into the, you are over-qualified for this job, problem. A few years ago a local real estate company needed someone to take pictures of their properties. I applied for the job and the business owner told me that surely no one with my qualifications would want such a job.
I saw it as a perfect job. I could use my photography skills and use my tech skills to process the photos and upload them to the real estate company’s website. The job would allow me to stay off my feet except for the time it took to take the property photos.
However, no matter how I pleaded my case with the business owner, she steadfastly believed no one with my qualifications should want a job like this. In other words, I must be hiding something if I want a job like this.
A further hindrance to finding employment is the fact we have a grown daughter with Down Syndrome who needs supervision. If Polly is at work then I must be at home. This limits my work availability to the weekends or during the times Polly is at work. Sadly, most employers, want prospective employees to be available any shift, seven days a week.
And then there is the whole atheism issue. Since I blog using my real name and I am a frequent writer of letters to the editor of the local newspaper, I fear my resume is often immediately dispatched to file thirteen by local Christian business owners. Yes, it is illegal for them to discriminate on the basis of religion, but it happens. As long as the discrimination is never publicly stated, employers can pretty much discriminate on the basis of age, race, handicap, or religion.
Now, I didn’t write the above personal narrative because I want people to feel sorry for me. It is what it is. My point is to help readers see that the reasons for a person being unemployed are often varied and complex.
Yet, according to Congressional Republicans, I am just too lazy too work. If I really, really wanted to get a job I would get one. Every time I read or hear a right-winger go off on the unemployed, I want to scream. I wish, just for a month or two they could walk in my shoes.
These days, Polly makes enough money for us to get by on. Economically we are better off than we ever have been. (better off being quite relative) Our daughter with Down Syndrome receives SSI. Outside of the Earned Income Credit, we do not receive any form of government assistance. Due to foolishly opting out of Social Security when I was a pastor, I do not have enough recent work quarters to qualify for Social Security Disability. I plan to draw Social Security off my non-ministerial income when I turn 62. As it stands now, unless I find employment, in six years, I will draw 600.00 a month from Social Security.
I would like to see the full-blown work program operated by the Federal government. Like the public works projects in the Depression, a government work program would help employ those who are unemployed or who are, like me, unemployable.
The actual unemployment rate in the United States is actually much higher than the government reports. People like me are not counted when calculating the unemployment rate. Once we are no longer eligible for unemployment we no longer “count.” This allows government bureaucrats to artificially suppress the true unemployment rate.
Waiting on the private sector and free-market capitalism to “fix” our economic and employment woes is a waste of time. Corporations, for the most part, are driven by market share and profits. They have shareholders to answer to and they can not afford to be bothered with doing things that are for good of society. Until Congress stops U.S. corporations from outsourcing jobs and ends their off-shore tax avoidance schemes, it is unlikely the private sector will have much to do with reducing unemployment and poverty in this country.