When we say "welfare," we primarily think of the Department of Social Services' family independence program, which in 1995 began limiting the time families could draw cash benefits and began tying that assistance to training and job searches. But welfare is not a single benefit as much as a series of uncoordinated programs offered by numerous state and federal agencies. It includes:
- Food stamps from the Department of Agriculture.
- Housing/rental assistance from the State Housing and Development Board and local housing authorities.
- Medicaid health care from the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Child care through DSS.
- Women, Infants and Children supports from the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
- Subsidized school lunches from the Department of Education.
- Earned Income Tax Credits from the IRS.
- LIHEAP energy assistance through the governor's office and community action agencies.
- Transportation from DSS, DHHS and the Office on Aging.
Bottom line is that although welfare reform reduced "welfare" dependency, a great deal of public assistance remains diffused and masked within larger social welfare programs, as Douglas J. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research explained in a 2006 op-ed in The New York Times.
People leave "welfare" programs such as those operated by DSS, he said, and even though they are "off" welfare, "some of these families survive only because they still receive government assistance - through food stamps (an average of more than $2,500), the Women, Infants and Children program (about $1,800 for infants and new mothers), Supplemental Security Income (an average of over $6,500), or housing aid (an average of $6,000). Their children also qualify for Medicaid. In reality, these families are still on welfare because they are still receiving benefits."
DSS says the maximum annual cash assistance for a mother of two comes to just over $3,250. But food stamps, WIC and housing assistance alone contribute an additional $10,000 in benefits - not too far off what might be earned in a minimum-wage job.
Accordingly, as I wrote legislators recently, we do not have an accurate picture of dependency in this state: "The information needed is scattered and largely inaccessible. It's difficult enough to grasp all the different welfare programs available, much less monitor the effectiveness and efficiency of each. Lacking is a comprehensive accounting factor that we elected officials must require in order to reconcile the public's frustrations."
For months, I have been trying to spark a discussion on how South Carolina will break the culture of dependency that pervades these programs. (The media finally have joined that discussion, albeit adversarially.) We are sending the absolutely wrong signal to the next generation about what is needed to get ahead in life if we don't threaten benefits for recipients who won't lift a finger to help themselves or their children. The flood of e-mails, calls, personal contacts, voice mails and television Web site polls tell me most people agree with me.
And even while the large majority of South Carolina's taxpayers are in agreement with my intentions, editorials have attacked me personally, questioning my morals, intellect, leadership, historical understanding and background.
I am the product of a broken home who qualified for, but rejected, the free-lunch program. As a child, I chose to cut grass and rake leaves, dig gardens, paint and do whatever chores my neighbors would pay me to do so my sister and I could pay for our lunches. I know the meaning of sweat labor, and I have been a proud businessman since middle school. I am not a lawyer. I graduated from the University of South Carolina while running my business.
I am hearing from people who accept random drug testing as a condition for their jobs. They see no problem with having people on public assistance doing the same. Like the private sector, the first offense should mean mandatory counseling and the second one termination.
People ask me not to give up on trying to rethink a broken system.
By the way, we were warned. In his 1935 State of the Union message proposing Social Security and welfare, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cautioned: "The lessons of history, confirmed by evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is a violation of the traditions of America."
What are the traditions of our country? Certainly among them are ideas like jobs for people so we can restore our economy, a government that empowers individuals and strengthens our communities, and making our government work for ordinary citizens again.