Despite the more than $22 trillion the federal government has spent over the past five decades fighting the War on Poverty, nearly 40.6 million Americans remain trapped in poverty. About 11 million are Hispanic.
What has worked to reduce poverty over the years? Empirical evidence tells us providing low-income Americans with work and employment opportunities is significantly more effective than expanding the social safety net.
This approach has been driving recent efforts by governors, some in Congress, and the Trump administration to couple government assistance benefits with nominal work requirements. Given the evidence that increasing employment opportunities helps reduce poverty, one would think that these efforts would have broad bipartisan support.
Among the biggest misconceptions is that work requirements would force the disabled, the elderly and those caring for children to work to receive government assistance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly all the proposals take great pains to ensure that work requirements apply only to able-bodied, working-age adults with no dependents.
Even then, work requirements are defined loosely. In most cases, low-income Americans seeking government assistance can fulfill most obligations by enrolling in school, signing up for job training, or simply by actively looking for work. In addition to exempting the disabled, the frail, and those caring for children, most work requirements also exempt those who are enrolled in rehabilitation or receiving substance-abuse treatment.
Such flexibility belies the allegations that work requirements are tantamount to pulling the rug from underneath millions of Americans living in poverty.
There is another benefit to encouraging work over government dependence and it has to do with what Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, describes as bridging the dignity deficit. What he means is that besides providing folks the means to live, work also gives people a sense of dignity, self-worth and purpose.
As anyone who has gone through prolonged periods of unemployment will tell you, being out work is not only financially debilitating — it is also emotionally draining. This is precisely why lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals are right to pursue policies that will help those who have fallen to get back on their feet and equip them with job skills so they are able to find permanent employment.
There is precedent for embracing this approach.
In 1996, at the federal level both parties worked together to craft meaningful welfare reform. The legislation was far from perfect, but it did much to lift millions of people permanently out of poverty, including African Americans and single mothers. And in New York City, during 1994-1998, Hispanics left the public assistance rolls at high rates, a phenomenon that researchers say may have been attributable to a mix of better economic environment and changing welfare administrative practices
Both of these examples should be heralded as success stories of how government assistance is supposed to work. We care for those in need, while equipping those struggling to get ahead with the skills necessary to find work and provide for their families.
If we do this, we can ensure that government assistance goes to those who need it the most, while discouraging government assistance as being a permanent way of life.
As the sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants who sacrificed much to live in this country of abundant opportunity, we know how valuable work is to achieve the American Dream. Latinos should welcome efforts to recommit antipoverty programs to work requirements.
Israel Ortega is a spokesperson for The LIBRE Initiative.
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