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You Do the Work You Can Get Until You Can Get the Work You Want


On the April 4 ballot, Wisconsin voters will be asked, “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?”


The question is absurd.  Elected officials are trying to score what they think are political points rather than producing outcomes for the people who elected them. Its wording is designed to elicit a desired response and it’s “advisory,” which is a moot point since the vague phrase “look for work” gives us no clue what this requirement means.


The focus on childless adults makes no sense. Having children should not exempt anyone from working.  Millions of working women would be shocked to learn that being mothers gives them a pass on supporting their families.


Real leaders in the legislative and executive branches of government would be taking on serious reform of Wisconsin’s public assistance programs.  Their only motivation would be improving the lives of Wisconsinites, something we rarely see.


Wisconsin residents receive about $12 billion annually in “antipoverty” money from state and federal taxpayers.  “Public Assistance” is the broad term used for programs that provide cash or other benefits to individuals and families from any government entity.  This assistance is also known as the ““safety net” - federal, state, and local governments fund and operate programs to help poor people.  The federal government’s role in the safety net has expanded since the 1960’s when President Johnson declared “war on poverty,” and it wields a heavy hand in controlling and regulating the funds it provides.


Federal and state spending on these programs has increased dramatically in recent decades as the number of recipients has grown to well over a million. The programs are seriously flawed. They accommodate poverty rather than promote prosperity.  They are extremely complex involving many layers of government. Employment is not required, and benefits are not temporary. They create benefit cliffs, meaning people are better off financially if they don’t progress to better paying jobs, and they discourage marriage.


Wisconsin’s labor participation rate is 64.7%.  Labor participation is the percentage of the workforce-age population in the labor force.  The labor force is the number of people working or actively seeking work.  Politicians deceive us by touting our 64.7% rate as better than the national average.  They don’t tell us that people who stop looking for work are no longer counted and can artificially drive up the rate.  They also fail to mention that our rate peaked in 1997 at 74.5%.  The current rate is far too low.


Economic conditions in Wisconsin are ideal for creating public/private partnerships to substantially reform public assistance.  Employers across our state are desperate for employees and they’re in a mood to innovate. As an example, counties might work with employers to establish a database of available jobs. Potential beneficiaries would be required to select one rather than sending them out “looking for work.”  Funds currently spent on direct payments to beneficiaries who are not working could be redirected to help employers work with employees to address the challenges of transportation, childcare and even housing.  Leaders who were serious about reform would invest in innovation.


There is another, more important reason to reform public assistance than cost savings.  There is no freedom without self-sufficiency.  A cornerstone of the liberal agenda is dependence on big government. Liberals, who are obsessed with the evils of our country’s history of slavery, don’t seem to realize dependence enslaves people.  The shackles of dependence are as real and destructive as those worn by slaves in the 1800’s.  We must have safety nets in place for those who need them, but dependence cannot be a way of life for those capable of self-sufficiency.


My older brother is one of the best men I know. In 1970, he was 19 and flying helicopters in Vietnam.  He was shot down, badly wounded and rescued by the heroic actions of the men he was fighting with. He returned home, recovered, and married his high school sweetheart.  They were 19 and 21 and had 3 children early in their marriage.  His dream was to be an airline pilot.  He went to work full time on his aviation education and worked full time as a janitor for the Muskego School District to support his family. He was happy to have a job and never felt the work was beneath him.  He always said, “You do the work you can get until you can get the work you want.”  He had a long, successful career in aviation and when he retired, he was the Captain of an Airbus.

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