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The Idea Behind Welfare Reform That The Media Doesn’t Want To Talk About

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A GOP bill backed by the Freedom Caucus that reforms welfare programs calls for spending cuts and strengthening work requirements, sparking outrage from the establishment media.

The term “welfare reform” strikes fear in the hearts of liberals everywhere, and acts as a clarion call for the establishment media to hurl unfair assertions at its opponents. The tired, one-sided argument that the GOP only proposes welfare spending to pay “for tax cuts” for the rich and “massive hikes in defense spending,” all at the expense of needy children, is back.

Cuts to welfare spending are often framed by media outlets as being catastrophic to the poor, and that lowering requirements for enrollees and increasing spending is compassionate. However, those that advocate for lowering welfare spending or adding work requirements want to see people starving in the streets, as the narrative goes. Vox’s Tara Golshan quotes James Ziliak, University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research director, saying that a “sizable population” would be left “destitute” if the GOP’s reform plan became a reality.

The Huffington Post described the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as aiding in the “eradicat[ion] of starvation in the U.S.” and claimed that the GOP uses it as an “ATM” to help fund defense spending and tax cuts. The Daily Kos characterized the Republican Party as “pretty damn vicious to the poor,” and declared in its headline that the GOP wants to cut safety net programs to “shreds.”

Straw man arguments aside, the idea that tax cuts need to be “paid for” is fundamentally incorrect, and is deceptive framing on its face. Tax cuts do not cost any money, rather, government programs do. Left-leaning media outlets act as if funding for government programs is a foregone conclusion, ignoring the incentives and constraints that government spending — whether funded by taxes or deficit spending — places on flesh and blood people in an economy.

Many in the establishment media dismiss the argument that generous welfare spending can actually increase the level of poverty by subsidizing non-productive behavior. Think of it as being paid a salary to not find work. This has little to do with the work ethic of any particular recipient,  but rational economic behavior. If someone can earn more by not working than they can by working, it becomes a rational economic decision not to work. If one were able and willing to leave welfare for work, or accumulate skills in the marketplace that command higher wages, they would pay an implicit tax in lost benefits for becoming more productive.

Nearly all establishment media reports ignore empirical data showing that continual increases in welfare spending can reduce incentives for people to work, precluding them from accumulating the skills and experience necessary to climb out of poverty and resulting in a vicious cycle that many struggle to escape. Research shows that welfare spending can aid in lifting people out of poverty, but only to a point.

Economists Lowell Gallaway and Daniel Garrett, writing for the Cato Journal, concluded that “there eventually comes a point at which additional increases in public aid increase poverty.” In short, give those in poverty the right amount and it helps them out of poverty — too much and it traps them there.

The success of welfare programs should be judged not by how many people rely on it, but by how many people no longer need it, and the program’s goals should be in pursuit of those ends.

Historically, the types of reforms proposed by the Freedom Caucus have reduced the number of people dependent on welfare. Similar measures were part of welfare reform in 1996 and resulted in a 50 percent decrease in welfare caseloads, an increase in employment among low-skilled single mothers, and a drop in poverty rates among black children and single-parent families to all-time lows.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for the efficacy of safety net programs, so long as they remain a safety net, and not a programs that discourage productive activities. People on both sides of the aisle can agree that lifting people out of poverty should be the role of welfare programs. An honest debate on how to reach that goal should dominate discourse, led by a media that puts helping those in need above partisan talking points.

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