Reform Welfare with a Helping Hand, Not a Kick in the Teeth
Senator John Marty
June 15, 1998
Minnesotans want welfare reform that helps people move from welfare to work. Not changes that give a kick in the teeth to those who are down and out.

We want people to work. The economy is stronger when everyone is working than when people are idle. Also, taxpayers save money when fewer people receive public assistance. But it’s not only for economic reasons that we need people to work.

Work provides other benefits as well. It gives people a sense of self-worth. It gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of contributing. Work connects us with society and discourages anti-social behavior. A strong work ethic is important.

Unfortunately, even after the recent reforms, our welfare system penalizes those who try to work and become self-sufficient. For many welfare recipients, getting a job means losing medical coverage, leaving children without appropriate childcare, and earning a wage that is inadequate to live on. This creates an incentive to stay on welfare.

The guiding principle for our welfare system should be that every adult has the responsibility to work and contribute to society. In return, the state has the responsibility to help those who are down-and-out to gain the tools they need to become self-sufficient. This includes more than lip-service help with physical, emotional and mental health problems that prevent some people from gaining self-sufficiency.

While some aspects of recent welfare reform legislation will help people get jobs; other aspects are punitive and counterproductive. For example, a one-year limit for education and job training makes little sense, when such programs often lead to jobs that pay inadequate wages while two year programs give much better job prospects.

In the Senate, I authored welfare-to-work legislation. My bill would help people become self sufficient—by making childcare and health care affordable and providing for decent wages. It would boost the minimum wage and give financial incentives to businesses willing to train and hire welfare recipients for living wage jobs. Teenage mothers would not be simply given a welfare check that enables them to start their own household, but would be given adult guidance in parenting and be held responsible for finishing school and getting a job.

My welfare-to-work proposal would save taxpayers money. Helping with childcare and health care expenses is much cheaper than paying all of a recipient’s living expenses. Training a person for a living wage job is cheaper than continuing to pay welfare year after year. Welfare-to-work is truly a case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

There is no quick fix here; the challenges are obvious. If a welfare recipient has no way to pay for childcare, there is no chance to work. If there is no transportation available, there is no way to get to the job. If a person has no work skills and doesn’t understand the importance of showing up every day, they won’t hold a job. Failure to address these issues is a failure to reform welfare.

Finally, a full time worker should not live in poverty. Working people deserve decent housing, a good diet, and affordable medical care—that’s simple fairness. And, you can’t support a family on $5.15/hour. Welfare reform requires a higher minimum wage. It requires living wages for all workers.

Our welfare system was backwards. It encouraged the break-up of families, and fostered dependency, not self-sufficiency. We have an opportunity to redefine how we help those in need. The goal is not to ignore or punish welfare recipients. The goal is to move them from welfare to work. In the end, all Minnesotans will benefit if we help people to help themselves.

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