Since the early-1980s, when "trickle-down economics" decreased government assistance in favor of the theory that "a rising tide lifts all boats", the financial struggle of disadvantaged Americans has increased. In the 1990s, the governmental safety net further eroded in favor of personal responsibility. This trend has dramatically accelerated since then. Government funding for many programs has been curtailed in the name of fiscal constraint, eligibility for programs has been narrowed, benefits have been decreased, and further decreases have been threatened, often with a vilification of aid recipients.
For those among the ranks of the impoverished, the road out is much more difficult. Studies have shown that the cost of living is even higher for the poor than for the middle class. For example, since the poor often do not have bank accounts, they rely on more costly check-cashing services. Since they often do not have cars, many rely on corner stores, which are more expensive than more remotely located discount superstores. Many feel they have no alternative but to turn toward crime and other destructive choices to pay the bills.
Rather than focus on easing the cost of daily expenses, governments often address the consequences with sharp increases in spending for law enforcement and prisons, which impedes their ability to finance more long-term and constructive solutions. Yet, such solutions are necessary. While there will always be a certain percentage of the population who will opt for crime and drugs under any circumstance, studies have shown that most would have steered instead toward a financed education and a job, if such had been offered.
The government has multiple objectives in this arena. On the one hand, it provides a social safety net, to get people back on track and help restore communities. On the other hand, it has to be fiscally responsible and efficient in its delivery of services, getting the biggest bang for its buck without duplication of services and without inconsistencies in eligibility standards.
Ideas / Solutions
An innovative initiative could help the government satisfy these multiple objectives by bundling all programs and benefits for disadvantaged and low-income Americans into one comprehensive package. An individual could choose either to "commit", in which case they can receive all benefits, contingent upon maintaining certain commitments, or "forfeit", by not agreeing to the commitments, or subsequently not complying with them, and, therefore, going it alone, without any assistance from governmental programs.
A singular, unitary application process could apply to all of the benefits, thus saving substantial administrative overhead costs that are currently incurred from multiple filings and processing. By enabling people to sign up for multiple benefits through one application process, it would eliminate the daunting barrier of multiple, complex forms, which keeps many from accessing benefits that could make a difference in their lives. Also, by designing the processes and forms to be interoperable across, and accessible to, Federal, state, and local governments, there would be much better coordination, data, reporting, and accountability, with much lower costs and reduced fraud.
Although all benefits would be available, some would require additional qualifications, such as meeting college entrance requirements, and satisfying criteria to participate in micro-enterprise training and loan programs. Certain benefits would be offered for only limited durations or be phased in or out, in conformance with existing law, such as TANF or welfare benefits, while others could be ongoing, such as food stamps.
The bundled package would include:
- vocational education,
- community college and university education,
- rent subsidies,
- low-income heating and cooling energy assistance,
- food stamps,
- health care,
- Basic and advanced job skills training (for employees seeking advancement),
- job placement services and training in job search skills,
- public transportation and subsidized purchases of lower-cost used vehicles,
- micro-enterprise start-up training and loans,
- child care assistance,
- formation and initial capitalization of Individual Development Accounts,
- substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation, and
- other services and assistance aimed at facilitating self-sufficiency.
With such a complete package of benefits, there certainly would need to be a catch to prevent abuse of the system. To qualify for the program, one would have to commit to a personal responsibility contract, promising not to engage in substance abuse and criminal activities, nor facilitate such activities by others, while in the program, and for five years after exiting the program. Participants would be required to submit to regular drug tests, and would be subject to doubled criminal penalties for any drug-related or other criminal offense committed while in the program or during the five-year period that follows.
A recipient would still have to comply with other required conditions, such as those of the housing facility where they live, and the educational or training institution that they are attending. The recipient would also have to commit to a minimum of five or ten hours of community volunteer work each week, in a capacity benefiting either a non-profit organization or other community based activity. While low performance in the job training or educational program in which the individual is participating would not, by itself, result in disqualification from further benefits, a termination of benefits could result from disciplinary problems, poor attendance, or a demonstrable pattern of a lack of effort.
Disqualification for failure to comply with the terms of the commitment would result in an immediate termination of benefits. A disqualified person would not be able to apply for reinstatement into the program for three years, and could be obligated to repay the government for services received in an amount based on a sliding scale, to be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering their ability to pay and other obligations.
There may need to be a special provision to allow someone to receive certain benefits, such as food stamps, without participating in the full program. But other benefits, such as micro-enterprise start-up training and loans, subsidization of vehicle purchases, free community college and university education, and rent subsidies could be made available exclusively to those who participate in the full program.
For individuals who are willing to make a personal commitment of self-improvement and contribution to society, bundled benefits would provide a level of benefits greater than that which they can currently receive. At the same time, they would be subject to greater risks for failing to uphold their commitment. This program would place the responsibility for achievement in the hands of the individual participants, along with a roadmap out of poverty. It would present an opportunity and a climate for success, and would minimize the societal costs of disenfranchisement, which are currently skyrocketing and threatening the fiscal sanctity of countless state and local governments.
This program would put into practice the widely held view that, when offered a decent standard of living through a law-abiding lifestyle, accompanied by opportunities for personal advancement, people are eager to accept it in lieu of a lifestyle based on crime, violence, drugs, and exploitation.
Coordinating the programs' eligibility standards, application process, benefits disbursements, and accountability measures, plus the partnerships with other institutions, would certainly require statutory and operational retooling. Institutionalized bureaucratic interests might not take kindly to the challenge. But the societal benefits are potentially great and far outweigh the inconvenience. Compared with the complexity of the recent consolidation of a plethora of full agencies into one Department of Homeland Security, restructuring these programs into one Commit Or Forfeit plan would be a modest task.