Saturday, September 17, 2005

Saturday Morning with Uncle Ben: Where is the Government Dependency?

The more I talk to Ben, the less I understand some of the comments he is likely to make. Yesterday was a rather tame and cordial conversation. In fact, I think we have started to disappoint the others at the table, since they got a lot of pleasure out of our arguments.

Ben was asking me, repeatedly, how long people should be allowed to receive government assistance. The phrase he used for this is "womb to tomb." His concern is that giving money to help people creates a dependence, and they never will wean off that dependence. I am not surprised by his view, however, I find it frustrating that he is so broad and sweeping in his condemnation of welfare.

I place students each year in various social service agencies and non-profits. I also sit on the board of a local non-profit. Last week I attended a 5 hour session on handling personnel policies and finances for non-profit organizations. And, given my experience and exposure to this world, I don't understand why Ben can accuse these agencies of encouraging dependence among its clients.

First of all, since 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was abolished. President Reagan was hell bent on dismantling AFDC, and under his administration, we inherited the image of the black, welfare queen. It was President Clinton, however, who "revolutionized" welfare and now we have Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

What is interesting about the renaming of welfare to TANF is the stress placed on the duration of these benefits. Under TANF, you will receive benefits only for 5 years and you must be employed. If you are able to get a raise or promotion at your job, you will get a bonus. TANF stresses employment, not education. The benefits for education are much more complicated and messy.

My friend works at a Community College. She regularly sees students, who are returning mothers, try to figure out how to keep their subsidized housing while attending school. These mothers have to work a minimum of 30 hours to receive the subsidy for their rent. Now, if they want to attend CC, they are put in a real bind: how do you pay for your rent, work 30 hours a week, care for your children and take classes to eventually lift you out of poverty? The system is a nightmare to work with. It can be done, but it takes a lot of people helping you to work with the various agencies involved. And, that takes time, which is a precious commodity in such a woman's life.

The goal here, which I think Ben and I share, is lifting people out of poverty. He categorically rejects any government program to do so. In his view, the government does a bad job. I disagree that the government, by nature, does a bad job. I do think, however, that various state agencies, straight-jacketed by nonsense legislation or by administrations who want to cut social services (which they think is the "fat" in goverment) make programs worse off.

Let me add another perspective, since I mentioned that I attended a workshop on the financial end of non-profits. The regulations on non-profits that ensure they run with complete transparency and accountability are significant. For example, if you go to GuideStar, you can look up the tax returns (the 990s) of all non-profit organizations. You can see how much federal grant money they receive, how much the director of the agency makes, how much is donated to the agency etc. Moreover, non-profits set up rather sophisticated "whistle blower" policies as well as policies for ensuring that no one person is in charge of all the money handling.

Mismanaging money at non-profits does exist. But, so does having to spend great sums of money on all of this bureacracy that is imposed by federal and state regulations. Frankly, many non-profits don't have the staff or equipment dedicated to just the administrative side of the agency, so you have people working their butts off in direct services and putting together by-laws, and fundraising, and keeping the books. These people get paid squat. Go look it up.

Now, compare what someone at say Halliburton makes off a government contract to what a non-profit employee makes.

I want to end this post with some "common ground." Ben and I want to figure out how you get people out of poverty. And, I think he is invested in education as one avenue, since he taught in public schools for most of his life. I agree with this strategy. I also agree with Ben that there is unbelieveable mismanagement and nonsense legislation that tampers with our public school system. But, what is the solution?

I honestly want to hear what people think.