Just months after launching America’s War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson made a brief visit to South Florida for the dedication of newly constructed Florida Atlantic University in October 1964.
President Johnson warned in his address that day of depriving children in need of a quality education, because doing so “perpetuates poverty as a national weakness.” While any parent would agree with the immeasurable value of a good education, nearly 50 years of hindsight has taught us some important lessons about poverty that go far beyond the classroom.
Johnson’s plan — and the 30 years of welfare policy that followed — were based on the faulty assumption that structural poverty could be eradicated by simply spending more money, creating new federal programs and raising taxes to sustain bigger government. Now, roughly $16 trillion later, there are more Americans living in poverty than when Johnson stepped to the FAU podium nearly a half century ago.
So how did the War on Poverty dissolve into a withering battle of attrition, wearing down generations of vulnerable families at a cost rivaling the entire size of our current national debt?
It turns out the anti-poverty equation was missing one of the most important variables of all: work.
By not requiring work or job training for healthy beneficiaries, the federal government perpetuated a decades-long cycle of dependency that smothered the individual’s spirit of earned success, while bloating the size of an already unmanageable Washington bureaucracy.
When states such as Wisconsin began to initiate work requirements for welfare benefits in the early 1990s, they found that welfare caseloads fell, and families in need saw their incomes rise. In New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani ushered in a work requirement program that reduced welfare rolls by hundreds of thousands over his two terms in office.
As the winds of change reached Washington, President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress came together to build upon the states’ success in promoting work. Requiring work was not a punitive measure; it was for the moral wellbeing of both person and country. The results were conclusive and undeniable.
Within five years of the bipartisan Welfare Reform Act of 1996, welfare caseloads dropped more than 60 percent. Work participation by never-married single mothers reached historic highs. Child poverty fell to record lows. And earnings for participating families rose substantially.
As a result of reduced welfare caseloads, precious resources could be more effectively and efficiently directed to families truly in need, thereby strengthening the frayed edges of the social safety net.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a provision that would empower states with the choice of initiating test projects that apply these same common-sense work requirements to the federal food stamp program.
In fact, citizens would be able to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits under no less than a dozen different work-related responsibilities. These activities include searching for a job and receiving career or technical training.
Governors would have the flexibility of remaining under the current federal system or applying work requirements in their state. They would also have the ability to choose the maximum age of participation. States that are successful in moving citizens from welfare to work will receive half of all cost savings from the program.
Should these state demonstration projects prove as successful in promoting self-sufficiency as the welfare pilot projects of the early 1990s, we will be well on our way to restoring accountability and opportunity to our nation’s food stamp program.
Now more than ever, the American people have a choice to make: continue down the road of failure and dependency, or change course to incentivize work, opportunity and earned success. We need to implement policy changes that reflect the lessons of our past or we will be doomed to repeat them.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If this country is ever demoralized, it will come from trying to live without work.”
The time to act is now.
U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland II represents Congressional District 2 in Florida. Peter Cove is the founder of America Works, a private, for-profit company that has placed more than 350,000 previously dependent people into jobs.