The failure of public assistance

Welfare programs have become permanent way of life.    

Democrats and Republicans alike have fought for and voted to support programs and funding to provide assistance to our most vulnerable citizens. The intention of this support was always to provide those in need with a temporary helping hand. For citizens who found themselves out of work, temporary unemployment benefits were provided. For those who needed help feeding their families, food assistance was provided. Additionally, low-cost public housing and free health care were provided for those in need. Each time a clear need has been demonstrated, government has stepped in to help. But what are the results of this assistance?

Congress and state legislatures across the country have allocated trillions of dollars to provide citizens in need with food, housing, health care, and other basic necessities. In the process of providing our fellow citizens with support, our government has built a behemoth of a bureaucracy which costs billions of dollars to operate before a single dollar of support is given to a citizen.


The federal government currently runs approximately 70 different anti-poverty programs. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy, aided by Congress and state legislatures, has compiled a set of rules that provides little incentive for a citizen to move beyond government handouts. Worse, these rules have served as a disincentive to work, which ultimately has created a barrier to self-sufficiency.

I believe our country is headed in the wrong direction. By increasing numbers, our poorest families are becoming less educated, less employed, and more reliant on government services and support. A system of assistance that was designed as a temporary helping hand has become a permanent way of life. Alarmingly, reliance on public assistance has become a sort of perverse legacy handed down from one generation to the next. In the same way that children repeat the behavior of their role models, children who know only public assistance follow the path shown to them.

If you look at the most vexing problems facing our nation, you will find, at least in part, that our system of public assistance has contributed to the problem. By almost any measure, our system of providing government assistance has been an abject failure.

First, the costs associated with welfare are unsustainable. The War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 consumed 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). By 2013, that spending consumed 6 percent of GDP. A 2010 report prepared by The Heritage Foundation noted that the fiscal 2011 cost for welfare was $953 billion, representing a whopping 42 percent increase from welfare spending in fiscal 2008. That same report predicted that the average cost for welfare spending, over the next 10 years, will exceed $1 trillion a year. Over the last 40 years, the number of people receiving food stamps jumped from 4.3 million to more than 40 million. While there is some debate about the definition of welfare and what costs should be included in these numbers, there can be no debate that these costs are simply unsustainable. Further, the money spent on these programs is not solving the problem. Not only are these programs not working, the programs and the growing reliance on them are making the problem worse.

As we consider the America that our children will inherit, it is critically important that every American citizen understand the long-term impact that government policies have on those citizens who rely on government assistance. The greatest threat to America’s future comes not from Islamic extremists but from the hopelessness of Americans who live on a dead-end street.

Public schools: Most residents receiving public assistance come from families with limited formal education and where education is not a priority. While there are many reasons for the poor performance of our schools, certainly having generations of children whose families do not place great importance on success in the classroom has had a negative impact on overall results.

Crime: The costs associated with crime are staggering both in terms of dollars spent and psychological impact, especially in urban areas. While scholars will disagree about the extent to which poverty is a causal factor in crime, virtually everyone agrees that it plays a major role. The failure of public assistance to move people out of poverty should be seen as a contributing factor as well.

Ferguson: Recent civil unrest in some American cities has as contributing factors poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and loss of hope for a better future. I do not mean to gloss over the issues that initially caused the unrest. However, I believe that it is undeniable that some of the frustration expressed violently by local residents has its roots in poverty and helplessness.
I am convinced that our system of providing public benefits is actually hurting the families who receive them. As executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority, I set out to change the system. With the generous financial support of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, we designed and tested an intensive case-management program that we call A Better Life. The goal of A Better Life is to break a resident’s reliance on public assistance by changing behaviors that have existed, in many cases, for generations. Ultimately, the program is intended to help families become self-sufficient by requiring that they go to work or attend school.

The program initially worked with 30 families, who volunteered to participate. We have learned several important lessons. First, we can change the lives of those who are willing to work with us. In just a few short months, for those first families who were willing to stay in the program, we have doubled the number of residents attending school and more than doubled the number working. Our residents are improving their credit scores and have already saved thousands of dollars that can be used to improve their lives.

Second, most residents will not seek out the help we offer. They are willing to stay right where they are. We have marketed our new program to approximately 1,200 families, yet we have struggled to find 30 willing to do the hard work necessary to participate in the program. Unless we have a way to hold residents accountable, we have little chance of helping more than a handful of residents achieve self-sufficiency.

Third, the only way this program will work is if the government requires families to participate. Yes, it is hard and in many cases the odds are stacked against those residents willing to do the difficult work required to become self-sufficient. But it should not be acceptable for people to say that they won’t even try. The current system not only lets them sit on the sidelines, it encourages it.

In Worcester, the challenges that we face are most acute in our family developments, where nearly 80 percent of adults are unemployed and more than 40 percent of residents between the ages of 18 and 24 have not graduated from high school.
Based on the results of our voluntary program, we expanded the initiative by moving any applicant family willing to participate to the top of the waiting list for housing. But this new approach also required participants to meet the demands of the program or face a loss of housing benefits.

Our program encourages, motivates, and requires residents either to go back to school, go into the work force on a full-time basis, or some combination of school and work equal to full-time. For each family, the first step in the program is to undergo a comprehensive five-part assessment that forms the basis for a family development plan. They must also participate in a life skills training program designed to help them gain the skills they need to improve their lives focusing on financial literacy, work readiness, domestic violence, conflict resolution, parenting skills, and other topics. The program’s requirements apply to every able-bodied adult member of a family under the age of 55. Any resident unable to find work is offered community service work at the housing authority while their job search continues.

The Worcester Housing Authority has thousands of applicants on its waiting lists.  With 3,000 public housing units available, the wait to receive a unit is often several years long, or longer. Many of these applicants are homeless. Yet fewer than 7 percent of those on the wait list have been willing to sign up for the program and go to the head of the line. Their actions indicate they would rather remain homeless than meet the requirements of the program.

Nevertheless, because our waiting lists are so long, we ended up with several hundred applicants who agreed to accept the requirements to go to work or school. The results were dramatic. Of the more than 100 families that entered the program to date, employment levels rose from 35 percent to 75 percent, personal income tripled, and the number in academic programs more than doubled.

Like so many issues facing our government, the answer to dealing with those who need a helping hand lies somewhere between the traditional Democratic and Republican responses. The money that we invest in our fellow citizens should be focused on efforts to attain self-sufficiency. To that end, we need to acknowledge that self-sufficiency can never be attained unless the person is willing to work hard to achieve that goal. Our current system has required next to nothing from those receiving benefits. It is time for recipients of public assistance to be required to participate in their own futures.

The pillars of our A Better Life program guide our work. They start with believing in the ability of residents, then setting high standards, holding recipients responsible, and helping recipients reach their goals.Part of helping recipients succeed is developing a system that provides them with financial incentives to move toward self-sufficiency. Incentives need to be applied to all public assistance so that someone willing to go to work doesn’t end up actually losing money or working for almost nothing once benefits are removed. Benefits should be removed gradually.

It won’t be easy reforming public assistance. The easiest thing for Congress and the President to do is to add money or take money away from public assistance programs. It takes no courage to treat them as a simple line item within the budget. A solution to the growing problem of how to provide public assistance can only be solved with hard work. Recipients of public assistance need to work hard to help lift themselves out of the poverty that has faced their families for generations. At the same time, these recipients need to be aided by equally hard-working case managers who will guide recipients along a path which, for them, has been wholly unchartered.

A few years back, I made a presentation to a large group of students attending Harvard Law School. I debated an instructor who specialized in the area of housing. During the presentation, the professor spent all of her speaking time criticizing my program but did not spend a minute proposing ways to change a system that, by almost every measure, has been a complete and total failure.

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In response to her comments, I said: “We know that the current system is a complete failure. If you have an idea as to how we can change this system and make it work for the people who receive these benefits, let me know what it is and I will abandon my plans and support yours. But if you don’t have a plan to improve the system, then get out of my way and let me make a difference in the lives of these families. For me, the only thing that is unacceptable is to continue doing what we know is already a failure.”

Raymond V. Mariano is the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority and a former mayor of the city. He spent nearly 20 years growing up in the same public housing developments he now manages.