May 25, 2016 | Commentary on Work and Welfare, Welfare and Welfare Spending

Pulling People from Poverty

"Go roll up your sleeves and go find out what poverty is all about."

You won't find many people on either side of the welfare debate willing to say that. But they probably aren't looking at the issue the same way Paul LePage is.

Maine's governor, who has spearheaded one of the most remarkable welfare-reform initiatives of recent years, knows about poverty. A childhood runaway born into a family of 18 children, Mr. LePage spent part of his teenage years homeless.

"When he was young, LePage worked odd jobs when he wasn't at school, delivering groceries and gathering empty glass bottles for the driver of a Pepsi-Cola truck he met," writes Daily Signal reporter Melissa Quinn. "So when he ran for governor in 2010, LePage made welfare reform a centerpiece of his platform."

Over the last five decades, the need for such reform has become blindingly obvious. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared "war" on poverty, stating he would make Americans self-sufficient by eliminating the causes of poverty. The end result of a slew of federal spending, though, was almost exactly the opposite: less self-sufficiency, and in many places a cycle of poverty that stretched across generations.

The main purpose of the 1996 welfare reform was to add a work requirement. If recipients were required to work (or at least be looking for work), welfare wouldn't become a way of life.

It proved a success, though a limited one: By the beginning of 2012, only four federal welfare programs (out of more than 80) had work requirements for able-bodied adults. And thanks to the Obama administration, work requirements were reduced even further. The results were predictable: more people on welfare. For example, in 2009 work requirements were suspended for abled-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps. After that, food stamp use among this group doubled.

In 2011, the newly elected Gov. LePage decided he could at least do something for the people of his state. So he reinstated a 60-month lifetime limit on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF cases in Maine have dropped 62 percent since then.

Now, TANF is supposed to provide assistance to needy families and train them for employment, and even the "T" implies it won't go on forever.

"If you don't have a time limit, all the education in the world isn't going to be very good. You give them a time limit and then you encourage them and inspire them to seek the education," Mr. LePage said. "My feeling was, you've got five years. We're going to work with you starting today, and in five years, you won't need the assistance because you're going to be self-sufficient. And that's the whole purpose."

Ask Jill Rothrock. The 44-year-old Maine resident had been battling drug addiction for more than 20 years before being arrested in 2007. Her offense: obtaining a Vicodin prescription fraudulently. She cleaned herself up and enrolled in TANF.

You might think she'd resent Mr. LePage's change to the program. Far from it.

"It forced me to do what I had to do to get off benefits and start making my own money again," she says today. "When you're on TANF and you're getting that money, it becomes your security blanket. It seems like a heck of a lot more money than it really is because that's the only money you're getting. To go off of it was really scary."

Scary, to be sure, but necessary. And, frankly, compassionate. Critics often denounce work requirements as heartless, but tell that to Ms. Rothrock and all of the other people who finally broke free of their destructive cycles because of welfare reform. Today they have self-worth and a purpose. That's heartening, not heartless.

As Mr. LePage points out, "We've been at war against poverty since [the '60s], and it's failed miserably." Do other states care enough about their welfare recipients to follow Maine's example?

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Times