How America’s Welfare System Hurts the People It’s Supposed to Help

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At around $700 billion a year, federal spending on welfare programs such as housing assistance, food stamps, and disability payments is bigger than the country’s military budget.

Yet for all the money—and good intentions—spent on welfare, it routinely leaves recipients with meager prospects for improving their situation. Worst of all, because the system is so poorly designed, beneficiaries routinely turn down job opportunities that will cut their benefits.

That’s the message of the richly researched new book, The Human Cost of Welfare: How the System Hurts the People It’s Supposed to Help, by Phil Harvey and Lisa Conyers. The authors interviewed hundreds of welfare recipients all over the country to provide an inside view of how welfare actually works and how people navigate an endlessly complex and contradictory set of programs. While appreciative of the reforms to welfare in the 1990s, the authors say the time for new changes is well past due. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, work requirements have been dropped while programs have been vastly expanded.

“One of the worst things aout the welfare system is that it induces this psychology of fear of earning too much,” says Harvey, the head of DKT International, which provides family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention around the world, and Adam & Eve, the adult-products catalog (Harvey is also a donor to Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason TV). “The prospect of having all your benefits cut off…or a significant part of your benefits cut off makes people look on earning income as risky.”

Co-author Lisa Coyners of The DKT Liberty Project traveled the country to talk with welfare recipients in a wide range of personal and economic situations. To a person, she says, they knew not to earn over a certain amount in order to protect their benefits. “It was actually frightening for them,” she says, “taking that extra hour of work or taking that raise [if]they would lose their benefits.”

Harvey and Conyers propose a series a reforms, including changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is broadly popular with lawmakers, that would allow welfare recipients to effectively “top up” their wages so that becoming upwardly mobile isn’t blocked by serious, short-term reductions in living standards.

The Human Cost of Welfare is reminiscent of Losing Ground, the 1984 book by Charles Murray that explained how Great Society welfare programs inadvertently created incentives for people to stay on welfare. Like that earlier book, which is widely credited with spurring welfare reform under Bill Clinton, The Human Cost of Welfare, shows how programs designed to help individuals end up perpetuating the very behavior they seek to improve. With its scores of original interviews and empathy for people who want to be in greater control of their lives and its sensible, workable reform agenda, The Human Cost of Welfare is a must-read for anyone interested in making government more accountable and improving the lives of the poorest Americans.

About 18 minutes.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Joshua Swain. Edited by Swain.

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