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Editorial: Anti-poverty programs working

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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Throughout much of recorded history, governments have provided assistance to the poor in various forms, from ancient Rome to medieval Islamic caliphates to early modern England all the way to present-day United States. But in recent decades, long-institutionalized welfare programs have come under fire.

The Supplemental Nutrition Food Assistance Program (food stamps), earned income tax credit, unemployment insurance, and even Social Security have been on the chopping block for conservative, self-proclaimed “deficit hawks” in Washington.

Considering the far-reaching impact of welfare programs and the weak jobs climate, cutting funds to these services in the recent past and near future are an enormous mistake.

Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure (a measure of poverty far more accurate than the official poverty rate), 49.8 million Americans live in the measure’s defined poverty. The census data also show that last year, Social Security kept 26.4 million people out of poverty, food stamps held 5 million people above the poverty line, and refundable tax credits managed to get 9.3 million people out of poverty.

These programs are essential to maintaining the well-being of families facing dire financial straits, largely thanks to the poor economy. While the official narrative is that the unemployment rate has improved slowly but surely, when economists account for the 6.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force because they couldn’t find work, it turns out that October’s unemployment rate would be 10.8 percent, rather than the official 7.3 percent.

Not only are American workers between a rock and a hard place financially, but a study published in Science in August found evidence that poverty substantially reduces mental abilities that can only make it harder to support families.

“Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources,” it stated. “The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity.”

The notion that poor Americans just have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (as the cliché goes), is much easier said than done, given the crippling effects of poverty coupled with a hostile economy. Now is probably the worst time to cut welfare benefits.

Obviously, as long as there is government, funds will be misappropriated. Sometimes, a bureaucrat makes a rounding error, and other times, people receiving financial assistance are intentionally cheating taxpayers. This is unfortunate but inevitable.

On the bright side, mistaken welfare payments rarely occur, Payment Accuracy, a federal government website reports. In 2012, food stamps had an improper payment rate of under 4 percent, Medicaid was at a mere 7 percent, with unemployment insurance at around 11 percent.

There is abuse. There are mistakes. But there are also desperate families who depend on this money to survive. Is it really fair to punish a huge proportion of welfare recipients simply because a very small minority may abuse the system?

The United States faces a debt problem. There’s certainly waste in the federal budget. But the cost of various welfare programs barely amounts to peanuts compared with other budgetary behemoths, such as the elephant known as the defense budget.

This isn’t just about compassion or empathy, but fiscal commonsense. Cutting welfare benefits in a rough economy is bad public policy.


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