No one grows up aspiring to become dependent on welfare.

Yes, there are some long-term welfare recipients who are content with a nonworking, government check-cashing lifestyle, but they’re surely a minority. The far greater portion of those reliant on government programs are trapped by circumstance and bad public policy.

Whether voluntary or involuntary, government dependence is an impoverished state of being we all ought to find repugnant. Most will agree that one’s ability to buy dinner should not depend on a welfare payment. And if we, as a society, can recognize this – that human independence is superior to government dependence – then it is incumbent upon us to encourage the former and discourage the latter.

How do we do this? It starts with incentives.

INTERVENTION DISTORTS INCENTIVES

Human action revolves around incentives. We are motivated to work because we enjoy the fruits of our labor. Government intervention tends to distort these incentives. And with the all-encompassing government we have today, these distortions tend to be rather significant.

In the case of our social welfare programs, the distortion takes the form of an economic system in which government checks compete with paychecks.

What’s the incentive to take an entry-level position when you can also choose to “earn” a similar amount on welfare? Government checks often win this competition, since they have the advantage of affording the recipient plenty of time for leisure.

This is not an indictment of the character of welfare recipients; it’s simply an understanding of human nature. The poor among us are rational actors operating within this system of incentives. And this system, though designed with good intentions, has the perverse tendency to incentivize the wrong kind of behavior.

Consider a hypothetical woman working part-time and receiving food stamps. If she gets the chance to work more hours, at some point she’ll face an incredibly difficult decision, as working more can make her ineligible for assistance. Eventually she’ll work an additional hour that sharply decreases her overall household income. So why would she work that extra hour?

These benefit cliffs are part of a poorly crafted incentive structure that discourages self-reliance – even among those determined to improve their lot.

Knowing that social programs distort human incentives and tend to do so in very unfortunate ways, the duty of those maintaining the social programs becomes that of designing the right system of incentives. In other words, welfare programs ought to encourage the kind of behavior mostly likely to lead the poor out of poverty to a more dignified way of being.

REWARD PERSONAL INCENTIVE

With some creative thinking, lawmakers could eliminate these cliffs and design a system that rewards, rather than punishes, personal initiative.

Fixing the cliffs is essential to facilitating the welfare-to-work pathway. But there are other ways to discourage government dependency.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the best way to alleviate poverty is to make it uncomfortable. Yet our social programs mostly disregard this simple truth. Our social programs mostly aim to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms of poverty (i.e., the inability to afford groceries) rather than the cause of poverty (i.e., the inability to find or keep a good job).

In so doing we provide fruit sans labor and thereby erode the incentive to work. This is the fundamental problem of the modern American welfare state.

In search of a solution, we can look to President Clinton for inspiration. In 1996, Clinton signed major welfare reform into law. Those reforms included a requirement that some healthy and able food stamp recipients work at least part-time.

Clinton’s work requirements are a bipartisan success story. In the years after they became law, poverty – and child poverty in particular – declined significantly.

RESTORE WORK REQUIREMENT

When the Great Recession hit, many states, Maine included, asked for waivers from the work requirement. The rationale was that you can’t require recipients of public assistance to work when no work is available. Now that the economy is recovering and jobs are available, however, restoring the work requirement makes sense.

The LePage administration, in the spirit of Clinton, has wisely decided to stop asking the federal government to waive the work requirement.

The decision will affect roughly 12,000 food stamp recipients who receive nearly $15 million in annual benefits. In order to receive benefits, these individuals will now have to work, perform community service or participate in qualified job-training programs.

This much-needed act of tough love levels the playing field in the competition between government checks and paychecks by removing taxpayer-subsidized leisure time from the equation. It’s one step closer to a welfare system that promotes an independent and dignified existence.

Steven E. Robinson is editor of TheMaineWire.Com and a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @Stevie_Rob