Recently, I heard a school administrator promoting the importance of making all of the parents at our schools aware of the existence of government programs for the homeless. “Lots of people don’t even know that they qualify for these programs.” she enthused. “If they are living with family members and not paying rent, they can qualify as homeless!”
What would that do for them, I wondered?
According to the website of the Oregon Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), its “re-housing program” can provide these kinds of services to the "homeless":
Re-housing programs work with people who are already homeless to help them quickly move into rental housing. Re-housing programs can provide housing location, financial assistance including security deposits, rent assistance and payment of arrearages and case management. Both homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs coordinate with other community resources to ensure that participants are linked to ongoing assistance, such as housing vouchers, intensive case management, or assertive community treatment.
So if a family (in this community often a new immigrant family) is managing their finances by living with relatives until they can get on their feet, government agencies can arrange to give them financial assistance in the form of security deposits to rent a place they otherwise couldn't afford to rent, and participate in a program of government “rent assistance” or “housing vouchers.” The person recommending this seems to think it would be a good thing to move someone into a situation where he was dependent on government for a place to live. Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.
Connected to that assumption is the proposition that any well-meaning person, such as a teacher or school administrator, has an obligation to convince stiff-necked individuals that their pride is hurting their children, and they really should accept the government’s largesse. This assumes, however, that one’s quality of life is measured simply by the dollar amount of the things one receives, without regard to how one obtained them.
Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.
Not so many decades ago it was commonly understood that there was something demeaning about being on "the dole.” People did not want to accept charity if they could make their own way in life. There were the pejorative terms “kept woman” and worse still, “kept man,” meaning a person who did not have a job but was supported by a sex partner. Many of the social programs we have today were sold with difficulty to an American public for whom public assistance and dependency carried a stigma.
According to Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, Social Security was presented not as a needs-based program of charity in which today’s workers pay for the benefits of today’s elderly, but as “a system of social insurance under which workers (and their employers) contribute a part of their earnings in order to provide protection for themselves and their families if certain events occur. As a result of this 'earned benefit' status, collection of Social Security benefits has never carried the stigma associated with food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or other welfare programs.”
That has been the pattern with a number of “entitlement” programs. Instead of being needs-based charities, which show one’s dependence, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are made for everyone. Therefore there is no stigma and everyone should be happy to receive benefits from the government. Of course, the effect is that these programs have ballooned in size and are currently unsustainable. (Odd that sustainable houses and buildings are all the rage, but sustainable social programs, not so much.) We have a huge financial burden looming ahead of us as these entitlement programs become ever more costly as more of us baby-boomers retire and expect to collect benefits. Because there is no stigma associated with these programs, we all intend to capitalize on them.
Here lies the problem — and also the solution to the problem. Instead of a War on Poverty, we should have a War on Dependence. All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance. They would still require considerable effort and would still employ many social workers for years to come, but the war could be won! We could get to the point where everyone had a way to support himself.
How would that look different from today’s social programs?
For one thing, we’d begin by applauding all those who already take care of themselves. We would hold them up and give them recognition. We would put them on talk shows and news programs to tell their story of how they manage in life without government assistance. They would become our role models. We would applaud and appreciate the fact that they do not need to collect on the various social programs to which they are “entitled.”
For example, people over 65 who were working at a job or who could afford their own medical insurance would be honored for their ability to be independent of Medicare. Right now of course, you virtually have to take it, because no one will insure you at age 65 unless you collect all the Medicare benefits you can. So right now we are forcing dependency — but the War on Dependence would change that.
We should encourage everyone to avoid having to depend on Social Security as well. Anyone over 65 who doesn’t need to collect “benefits” from the payroll tax in order to survive in old age would be a hero in everyone’s eyes. If people keep working, that would be super, because they can be independent thereby. If people save enough to retire with dignity, that would be even better, because they would be permanently independent. What’s more, their children would be well on their way to permanent financial independence, when they inherited the principal of their parents' retirement fund. As part of the War on Dependence, social workers would help younger people set up various retirement savings plans. Each person who had a workable retirement savings plan could stand tall in the knowledge that he would not become dependent on Social Security.
All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance.
One of the sad byproducts of the endless and hopeless War on Poverty is that self-sufficiency is no longer valued as it once was. Someone is considered a fool to turn down government benefits if he can “qualify” for them. What’s more, someone who gets a first-rung-on-the-career-ladder-job at a low wage still feels bad about himself. Instead of being proud of being independent, he sees that he is still in relative poverty, and that is what’s bad. People who are supporting themselves, no matter how meager their circumstances, should be encourage to take pride in not being dependent. We should make self-sufficiency the goal, the prize, the honor.
Social workers could help farmers who accept government subsidies find ways to become self-sufficient so they can be respected for making an “honest living” without help. Businesses that sold products abroad without help from the government would be recognized and patronized. Similarly, industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes. Students who found a college they could afford without government help would be seen as more resourceful and valuable future employees. Colleges that keep themselves in business without whining for more government money would be seen as more competent than those that couldn’t manage on their own. This turn of events might even drive down the cost of college. Primary and secondary schools that focus on helping their graduates prepare for the real world would also be recognized and respected; the ability of their graduates to avoid dependence would be the final measure of the schools' own worth.
Success would no longer be a nebulous and ill-defined chimera, but would be identified as the ability to support oneself and one’s family. Families that took care of their own (whether the young or the elderly) without government assistance would be honored. People with disabilities would be helped to develop as much independence as possible, and honored for every bit they could obtain — instead of scorned for their efforts to contribute to their own support.
Industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes.
Oddly, poverty could, in a sense, be eliminated overnight by simply writing checks of the proper amount to all the poor. It would help if all our programs of assistance were rolled into one program, so we could keep track of how much we were giving to each person. We might find that we had already eliminated poverty — that the cash value of all the various forms of assistance we provide to the needy would total enough to give them an income over the poverty line. But few people really believe, deep in their hearts, that mere dollars will eliminate the problems of the poor.
Independence is the solution — and we need to return to the habit of valuing it. There is still truth in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” That means focusing our efforts on reducing dependence instead of fostering it. A War on Dependence would be infinitely better than the old, unwinnable War on Poverty.