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M.D. Harmon: The left’s bankrupt welfare philosophy

It’s not often that definitions of words start political firefights, but what you might think would be a simple term is raising hackles on the left in Maine that reaches far beyond the pages of Webster’s New International.

You probably already know the word I mean: It’s welfare. 

It has become a Superword, able to leap barriers of sensible policy to achieve immortality no matter what its outcomes are, able to defy common-sense reforms apparently to the far side of eternity.

Conservatives, being sensible, ordinary folks who tend to look at reality face-on, define welfare programs as being government expenditures from the common purse that are provided to benefit hard-pressed citizens to get people over difficult times in life.

While some people with permanent disabilities or other long-lasting debilitating conditions may require assistance all their lives, most programs are supposed to be temporary aids so that the people being assisted can “get back on their feet” and become contributors to their own prosperity and to that of society in general.

So to conservatives, the measure of success of such programs is how many people get off them and resume responsibility for their own lives.

Sadly, that’s not with liberals think. It is utterly obvious that the left defines how “good” an assistance program is by how many it enrolls — and keeps supporting.

LIBERALS CLEARLY WANT to make people dependent on government programs and thus willing to vote for those who will continue and expand such programs, regardless of the long-term impact on taxpayers and budget deficits.

Thus, the fact that the number of people receiving food assistance payments has increased from about 27 million at the start of President Obama’s first term to 47 million today is regarded as a good thing by liberals, despite its back-breaking costs and dependency-maximizing effects.

It’s one thing to say people need extra aid in times of economic downturn. It’s quite another for politicians and their supporters to tell people they are “helping them” in this way while simultaneously working against economic policies that would offer those now dependent on government aid the chance to become self-reliant again.

And there isn’t really any question that the longer that people are out of the job market, they become both less employable in that market and much more unlikely to ever re-enter it.

Thus, programs that make it possible to spend years off the employment rolls (99 weeks of unemployment compensation, for example) do them harm, not good.

While our current unemployment rates remain less than 8 percent years after the current “recovery” began, adding in the number of “discouraged workers” who are of employable age but not looking for work raises that to 15 percent or more, which is a level approaching that of the Great Depression.

HERE’S WHAT ROBERT RECTOR, senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, said in a Sept. 23 column about current policies:

“In 2012, government spent $916 billion on more than 80 different means-tested welfare programs, not including Social Security or Medicare. These programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income Americans. Food stamps accounted for 10 percent of that total.”

The number of recipients is huge: Fully a third — 33 percent — of Americans get aid from one of more of these programs every month, and over the next 10 years, he reports, we will spend around $12.7 trillion on them.

While the left has objected to votes in the House to trim the food stamp program by $40 billion over the same 10-year period, Rector says that is “a rounding error” in total welfare spending.

Conservatives make themselves unnecessarily vulnerable by focusing their reform efforts on one program at a time, he says, making two recommendations for a new tack:

“First, reformers should frame the debate by discussing welfare as a whole.” Debating a $916 billion expenditure would not let the left pose as the sole force “standing between the poor and starvation,” Rector says.

Second, he says, “Reformers should call for the moral transformation of welfare. These programs should not be one-way handouts. Instead, they ought to be based on a reciprocal obligation between taxpayers and recipients,” where aid is provided to those in real need and then those who get it take steps over time to become self-supporting.

As Rector noted, these principles were the foundation of the welfare reform that congressional Republicans proposed in 1996 and President Bill Clinton signed into law.

However, Rector says, “The main problem was that we reformed only one anti-poverty program out of 80.”

MAINE REPUBLICANS HAVE HAD some success, but it has come at the price of being demagogued by liberals. Responding to those critics, Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, recently set the record straight in a letter to the editor:

“We capped previously unlimited Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash welfare benefits; tightened penalties for welfare fraud; enacted a waiting period for non-citizens; enacted legislation to drug-test convicted felons receiving welfare; reined in the budget-busting Medicaid program, and paid off the state’s welfare debt to hospitals. Republicans then used some of the savings to improve job programs for welfare recipients.”

What did all that accomplish? “We believe these reforms are important not just for the sake of our budget and as a matter of principle,” she said, “but because we know there is no greater economic stimulus than the life-changing effect of the dignity of a paycheck.”

If you want to hear the opposition’s view of that argument, you could note a remark by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., during the mini-filibuster conducted by Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz on Obamacare’s curtailment, which as expected failed to pass the Senate.

In saying why he was “proud” to have supported Obamacare, Durbin noted that a chambermaid at a hotel where he regularly stayed could get coverage under the law because her pay was so low.

“The good news for Judy is that her income is so low that she now qualifies for Medicaid for the first time in her life,” Durbin said. He used the image of an airline passenger who can’t afford to fly first class, but at least can now get a “ticket in coach.”

Sen. Cruz responded, “The best way for Judy or for anyone to have health insurance is to have an economy that is booming where people can get jobs and have opportunities.”

And, Cruz added, that what the airline analogy “really highlights is the special exemption that’s been put in place … that says members of Congress can fly first class, to use your airline analogy — but average Americans who are being forced onto exchanges where their employers can’t subsidize their premiums — they’re not even flying coach, they’re being put in the baggage compartment.”

True, conservatives have a tough selling job ahead of them if they want a comprehensive reform to work. But if Rector is right, a comprehensive fix is the only kind of reform that will work.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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