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May 31, 2012

What if social programs were abolished?

Amanda Haddaway

A recent post on Facebook by former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Brian Murphy said: “We know government can't create wealth, but maybe it goes beyond that. Is government the cause of poverty?”


Mr. Murphy didn’t provide his own opinion or answer to the query, but perhaps he’s onto a concept that’s worth exploring further. What if social programs were abolished, or significantly scaled back? What would happen to those who currently receive those services?


Many people believe that the idea of welfare and other social programs came about as a result of the Great Depression in the late 1930s. However, this isn’t the case at all. Social programs have been around since the very early days of the United States when our country’s founders adopted the British Poor Laws.


Under these laws, people who were unable to work due to their age or physical health were assisted with cash and assistance from the government. People who were able to work, but were unemployed were given public service employment in workhouses.


This is certainly an interesting notion since today’s unemployment system is vastly different from that of yesteryear. Now the system only requires that the unemployed person make two job contacts per week. The unemployment benefits continue to be deposited as long as this requirement is met until benefits are exhausted.


While workhouses sound a bit like indentured servitude, there are lots of companies who currently have openings. Go to or and you’ll see that despite our current economic conditions, there are still jobs available. The key is in finding the right match of a person with the proper skill set. Therein lies one of the many problems with our unemployment system.


For some people who fell into a “sweet spot” of federal unemployment extensions, benefits could be extended for more than a year and possibly up to three years. During a typical 40-hour workweek, making two contacts is hardly an excruciating effort. One could make the case that the current unemployment system almost encourages laziness and apathy.


Unfortunately, not all people have the chutzpah to want to get back to work. “Free money” without any effort, albeit a smaller amount than their previous normal wages, is enough to keep some people fat and happy for as long as they can make it work.


The unemployment system should be revamped to encourage people to want to get back to work. Retraining programs should be made more readily available and benefits should be decreased over time to incentivize people to re-enter the labor market.


There was a letter to the editor last week in The Frederick News-Post about the Independence Card program in Maryland. This social program provides Marylanders in need with ATM cards that provide cash and food benefits. The letter writer stated that he has observed two things: (1) an increase in people using the assistance cards and (2) using the cards to purchase expensive cuts of meat, seafood, expensive packaged goods, etc.


This is yet another example of a social program that isn’t working the way it should. Marylanders who aren’t on assistance are struggling to stay within their budgets when they do their grocery shopping. Why aren’t there tighter constraints on what the cards can be used to buy? It certainly seems unfair for someone who is on assistance to be eating more luxurious items than people who are making it work and living within their means and on their own earned dollars.


With Maryland’s recent decision to increase income taxes on the so-called upper class, perhaps many of the people collecting benefits are smarter than those of us who are working hard to earn a paycheck. Maryland has certainly dis-incentivized its citizens from trying to achieve higher salaries. Why bother to work harder and try to make more money when it’s just going to go to the government to pay for other people? It’s no wonder millionaires ran screaming from the state the last time Maryland monetarily punished them.


Social programs aren’t inherently bad. There are certainly people who need a “hand up” while they experience certain extenuating circumstances.


The reality is that many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck to cover their expenses including basic human needs like shelter and food. When someone loses a job, unemployment benefits are intended to help on a temporary basis until another employment opportunity can be found. When someone is working, but can’t quite break the poverty level, there should be some assistance to keep them nourished enough to be able to continue to work.


But what about those people who learn to live off of unemployment benefits? What about the people who take advantage of the system? Those are the people who need to be acknowledged and removed from the programs.


The current social programs have run amuck and lack the proper oversight, controls and performance metrics required to be effective. The pot of gold isn’t endless. Without reforms, the problem will only continue to worsen.


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