Anti-poverty Programs: Do They Really Work?

I was disheartened by a recent Rasmussen Poll that showed 64% of Americans do not think that government anti-poverty programs work.  I read this after a conversation with a friend who expressed concern about the direction of this country because of the growing number of people receiving “welfare”.

Catholic Social Service has worked with people in poverty and the Food Assistance Program (formally known as Food Stamps) and other anti-poverty programs for a number of years.  This is what I know:

  • The average time on Food Assistance (FA) is 17 months.

-- 27% of recipients receive for 6 months or less.
-- 41.5% receive for one year or less.

  • Only 14% of FA recipients report no income
  • 31% of FA recipients are earning income

-- 11% have income from child support
-- 27% have income from social security
-- 23.5% receive disability income

  • 57% of FA recipients have a high school diploma or GED
  • 9 % recipients have more than a high school education
  • 35% of eligible people do not receive Food Assistance
  • The Food Assistance program maintains a 98% accuracy rate

I came to understand the importance of the social safety net of this country through the food stamp program by watching a video celebrating its 30th anniversary.  This video shares that story.

You will never hear me argue that government anti-programs are the only solutions for poverty.  You will also never hear me suggest that government anti-poverty programs are long term solutions for individuals and families.  What I do suggest and promote is an idea that programs like Food Assistance is a hands up opportunity to help people out of poverty.

Food Assistance helps bridge the gap for people who have lost their job, experienced a reduction in hours, a medical hardship or a need for assistance when starting a family.  Food Assistance helps make certain that children don’t go to bed hungry and that our elderly receive good nutrition.

The greatest value of government anti-poverty programs is the ability to leverage those programs with community and faith based organizations.  The Teen Moms program of Catholic Social Service is an example of how to help make government anti-poverty programs work.  Most of the participants start the program receiving the benefit of government anti-poverty programs.  Through their time in the program the teen mothers set goal to increase their education level and to improve their employment.  Without the benefit of the government anti-poverty programs it would be more difficult for Catholic Social Service to help these young women at the level we do.  It would be a tremendous challenge to receive the kind of donations needed to provide the level of assistance that would provide food, medical care and cash assistance necessary to meet basic needs.

Some decisions have been made to make the government anti-poverty program less effective.  When welfare reform took place in 1996 the state of Kansas made some choices. They decided that any job was good job. So people who were receiving Food Stamps and Medicaid lost both when they got the job. Often the job was part time and did not include health care.  Kansas also made the decision to only provide child care assistance for mothers who were working. They would not help mothers who wanted to go to school to increase their skills so they could be more employable, advance in their careers, and best meet the needs of their children.  The state also established a five year lifetime limit for cash assistance.

Today I am very encouraged by some of the things I heard at a recent meeting with state officials discussing Medicaid. There appears to be an interest in stepping people off Food Assistance and Medicaid gradually as people get a job and improve their ability to care for themselves and their family.  Governor Sam Brownback has been very open about his desire to remove the marriage penalty that is inherent in our current poverty reducing programs.  Secretary Rob Siedlecki has focused energy in going after scams that defraud the state and take benefits from those who need them.

I have learned that government anti-poverty programs work.  They work most effectively when enhanced with a strong community or faith based effort.  Pope Benedict explains that it is the responsibility of the state (government) to create a just society.  He also reminds us that our responsibility for charity will always be there.

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