How Trump Can Improve Antipoverty Programs

With the presidential election in the rear view mirror, Washington and the rest of the country are now turning attention to what President Trump will mean for public policy. What would Trump do for antipoverty programs? Given Trump’s early focus on relieving child care costs for working mothers, that could be an early achievement for his administration.

A Trump administration may also be willing to require more labor force participation among SNAP and disability program recipients and could expand work-based tax credits.

After an election that showed the country is unsatisfied with the status quo, if Congress and the next administration are willing to put in a little work of their own, reforms to antipoverty programs could help more Americans get back to work.

Poverty studies researcher Angela Rachidi sketches an outline of a potential Trump antipoverty agenda.

Included should be a top-to-bottom review of existing safety net and job training programs. Ripe for reform are food, disability, and housing assistance programs — all of which could do more to support work among recipients. Additionally, workforce development programs, many of which have limited evidence of success, expansions to work-support programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care assistance, and efforts to improve the quality of education from birth to college, all deserve a serious look.

This is not a new concept for fans of TPOH. Indeed, apprentice training programs, gradual replacement of benefits as individuals climb the income ladder, and changes to disability programs have long been concepts discussed by TPOH to help the most vulnerable get on their own two feet.

For instance, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides that if a household doesn’t bring in a lot of money, then the government can supplement its earnings to help people stay on their feet and in their homes. However, childless households receive only $500 for a credit, not much of an incentive to encourage people to aspire to greater levels of achievement. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if individuals don’t develop an aptitude toward work, they won’t work, and will become dependent on welfare, so it makes sense to encourage work until people can develop the skills and interest in participating in the job market. EITC has shown that it has a positive effect on workforce participation.

As for apprenticeship programs, the original job training, who better to encourage that then the host of the 14-yearlong show called, “The Apprentice”? If exempted from minimum wage requirements, apprenticeship programs could be an area where companies feel encouraged to pick up and train employees in the areas where they need help. While getting on-the-job training from real-life employers, the government could use existing job training and college aid budgets to subsidize salaries, making sure individuals in these programs have enough money to live on while they develop their skills.

Finally, as labor economist Michael Strain explains, Social Security Disability Insurance was originally designed to help people who could no longer work after spending years in physically demanding jobs. Automation has reduced the number of physically exhausting jobs, yet the number of working-age adults on SSDI doubled between 1989-2009. This program has effectively discouraged work when it need not do so.

In today’s services economy, disability is often more a continuum than a binary state — a person may be disabled in the sense that he can’t stock shelves, but not disabled in the sense that he can’t sit behind a desk for 25 hours per week. SSDI should be modified to reflect this, covering individuals who truly cannot work, as a just society should, while encouraging others to do what work they can.

In other words, the safety net is becoming a hammock, discouraging people from working when it would be better used and more economical to help those who truly need a lift. Individuals with limited mobility can work in jobs that require fewer physical demands. As Mike Zelley, founder and president of the Disability Network, states, a half-million people with disabilities, including the 43 percent of whom have a college degree, are disincentivized to work because of federal disability programs.

The reality is that, due to his lack of specific proposals or experience in government, it is unknown what President-elect Trump intends to do to fight poverty. Will he be a strong fiscal conservative who focuses on requiring work, reducing fraud, and holding the line on the size of government; a Rockefeller Republican content to increase spending; or something else entirely?

Hopefully, the “wait-and-see” mode will soon be over.

Getting Back to Work: Not Merely Happiness, But Human Fulfillment

Work is often unpleasant in our fallen world. But it contains within it the seeds of its own redemption, and ours. It often fails to make us happy, but happiness is a fleeting emotion. Work gives us something more lasting and sturdy than happiness: fulfillment.

Thus begins a manifesto called “Getting Back to Work” by economist Michael Strain on how the U.S. federal government can help workers succeed and achieve self-actualization. The essay is part of the “Room to Grow” series by the Conservative Reform Network, which began in 2014 with the goal of developing innovative solutions to challenges facing the U.S., challenges largely created by an overindulgence among politicians to engineer social outcomes.

Strain, who studies labor force participation rates and work incentives, argues that public policy does play a role in job creation by enabling a vibrant job market. He acknowledges that a safety net is critical to ensuring that those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder have a support system. But he also notes that the support system has made it harder for people to get off that first rung.

He starts with a somewhat poetic look at the roots of man’s love and need for work before discussing how public policy has gone down the path of diminishing the value of labor.

(M)illions of people doing their particular jobs a little bit better than anyone else can create enormous wealth and, more important, improve the opportunity for individuals to lead truly flourishing lives.  Work helps us to flourish by allowing us to provide for our children. (Not all of this work, of course, is paid.) And work is a cure for boredom, one of the worst parts of modern, comfortable life.

Work creates community, something all humans need for flourishing lives. Members of your work community often become lifelong friends. Work educates our passions, directing them to productive ends, emancipating us from them. Work allows us to express ourselves, and in its proper understanding is deeply spiritual: In the Abrahamic faiths, the Supreme Being works, creating the world out of nothing. Saint John Paul writes that we are ‘called to work,’ arguing that we find ‘in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis’ the ‘conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence
on earth.'”

Strain also suggests multiple solutions:

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal earnings subsidy for low-income households, to homes without children.
  • Expand Work-Based Learning Programs that include apprenticeships and retraining worker who have been displaced by technology or globalization.
  • Modify the safety net so that it better encourages work and doesn’t define disability as a a binary state rather than a continuum.

A person may be disabled in the sense that he can’t stock shelves, but not disabled in the sense that he can’t sit behind a desk for 25 hours per week.”

Other suggestions from Strain include cutting payroll taxes as well as commute times, making it easier for former prisoners to find jobs, and reducing occupational licensing rules. Strain also breaks through some myths about barriers to work, and points out polling that demonstrates the benefits of his positions.

In all, bringing back the sense of American pride is one key to getting people back into the labor force. Included in this, according to Strain, is the effort to recover “a culture wherein more Americans feel an obligation to build a career, even from a low starting point,” a position that has been hampered by politicians creating policies that are intended to ease the burden of job loss but have resulted in building barriers that make it harder for people to return to the workforce.

Read more from Michael Strain’s report on Getting Back to Work.

The Talent Drain: Disincentives in The Federal Disability Program

On Jan. 18, 1979, Mike Zelley was heading home after a business meeting to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife. He was driving his car in the early dark, and turned onto a highway ramp. His car hit a patch of black ice and slid toward the guard rail. It being Detroit in the dead of winter, the plow trucks had pushed the snow out of the road and up against the rails, essentially forming a ski ramp. Zelley’s car flew up the snow ramp, 40 feet into the air, and down over the embankment onto its front end.

Zelley’s neck was broken. He was paralyzed.Mike Zelley 1080

Despite life-saving measures, he was to live the rest of his life as a paraplegic. He thought his life was over.

“Then something miraculous happened, something that changed my life,” Zelley told an audience in Washington, D.C. A friend of his brother, who was living life in a wheelchair, mentioned that he was a successful stockbroker. Zelley had an epiphany.

“If he can have a job and raise a family and have a career, and make money, and if he can live independently, if he can do all that, I can do that,” Zelley said he realized. “That peer support was a direct change in my life, right then.”

Since then, Zelley has been paying it forward. After returning to his successful business following rehab, he went on to launch the Disability Network, a consumer-driven, private nonprofit serving 6,000 individuals with disabilities based in Flint, Mich.

But paying it forward has been more difficult than he anticipated, in part because of the barriers created by a federal assistance program that ends up trapping people with disabilities rather than helping them return to their once-productive lifestyles.

SSDI, which is paid out through Medicare, provides a monthly cash benefit to disabled individuals to help them defray costs associated with their disability, like the costs of buying pedal controls for a van or new wheels for a wheelchair, or other household accommodations that help disabled people live as close to an independent life as they can.

But if a disabled person makes more than the allotted cash benefit each month, federal policy views that individual’s employment as “sustainable gainful activity” — wage replacement — and cuts off SSDI.

“It’s a spider trap,” said Zelley noting that $1,000 a month in income is below the poverty level.

And the web is getting larger. Fifty-four million Americans have a disability. In Michigan alone, 500,000 working-age people with disabilities are not employed despite 43 percent of them having a college degree.

In all, only one half of 1 percent of people on disability go back to work after becoming disabled. That’s a monumental talent drain considering 85 percent of disabled people acquire their disability during their lifetime, they are not born disabled. That means a lot of work experience, education, and other abilities is left on the table, displaced from the workforce.

“What is wrong with this picture? Why are we keeping people? Why are we trapping them?” Zelley asked.

“What a tragic waste of talent and skills,” he said, noting that the private workforce could also do more to encourage employment. “An accommodation is something that we all need (whether disabled or not). It’s not just good for business, it makes (all of us) more effective and productive.”

“My hope today is that you will see the importance of using all the talent that we have that is sitting on the sidelines. I am not my disability. … People are not their disability.”

As for Zelley, despite many prayers that he be able to walk again, he cannot. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor about it.

Remembering once during Catholic services, when everyone stood for the gospel, he shifted his weight in his chair — something disabled people have to do to prevent pressure sores. The movement prompted the choir director to shout, “Holy Jesus, he’s going to walk.”

He won’t, but he said he wants to get more disabled “out of the spectator stands, off the bleachers, on the bench, beginning training, into the game.”