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Welfare ‘reform’ bills: Suspecting all to catch a few, while harming many

Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz

The 18th century rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz observed that “some people act as if they are exempt from giving to 100 people seeking assistance in the event that one might be a fraud.” His comment is incredibly relevant today, as our Minnesota Legislature deliberates on a group of bills circulating under the misleading label of “Welfare Reform 2.0.”

These bills have the shared effect of erecting barriers that will prevent needy Minnesotans from accessing the vital safety net programs that help to spare them from the worst indignities of poverty. These bills propose subjecting applicants to criminal-background checks and drug testing, limiting how long people can receive help and increasing the length of time a new resident must wait to be eligible for benefits. Individually and collectively, these “reforms” add significantly to the cost of providing benefits in the name of “catching” those whom some consider unworthy of assistance.

Bills promote a false image of recipients

Masquerading behind a claim of good government, these bills promote the idea that most of those seeking assistance are able-bodied moochers looking to live on the dole, or worse. This is far from reality! Take, for example, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps and known in our state as the Minnesota Food Support program). Despite exaggerated stories suggesting otherwise, the USDA reports that SNAP has less than a 1 percent rate of fraud. What’s more, in 2010, most SNAP participants (55 percent) were children or elderly; and many SNAP participants (41 percent) had jobs that did not pay enough to avoid poverty.

Like many others in our state’s faith community, the Jewish community has made fighting hunger a community-wide priority. Synagogues in Minnesota, and across the country, partner with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger – to support food shelves, food banks and hunger advocacy organizations. We understand that these organizations, created to provide emergency relief, cannot alone solve the problem of hunger. We urge our government to accept its share of the responsibility to maintain a strong safety net that defends society against the worst ravages of hunger and ensuring appropriate access to it. Our legislators need to know that “Welfare Reform 2.0” is the antithesis of what we should be doing.

The costs of hunger

If we truly want good government, we should urge our legislators to heed the “Cost/Benefit Hunger Impact Study” (Sept., 2010) conducted by the Food Industry Center of the University of Minnesota, underwritten by the Target Corporation. This study demonstrates that hunger leads to higher health-care costs and poorer educational outcomes and, as a result, imposes substantial monetary costs on all Minnesotans – to the tune of between $1.26 billion and $1.62 billion per year.

The study also provides evidence that every dollar the State of Minnesota invests in food programs returns $41.55 in economic stimulus and savings. We should be urging our legislators to find ways to ease access to these valuable programs, rather than expending their energy creating impediments that demean all those unfortunate enough to find themselves in need.

Writing more than 200 years ago, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz urged the respectful treatment of people already suffering the indignity of poverty. The University of Minnesota provides us with empirical evidence showing that lowering barriers to access is actually better for our economy. Let us impress these lessons of head and heart on those who govern on our behalf.

Harold J. Kravitz is senior rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Minnetonka. He serves on the executive committee of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.


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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/04/2012 - 08:25 am.

    Sorry, Rabbi

    but the practice of background checks and drug testing has been a common requirement for employment for several years now. Even as a contractor I’ve undergone multiple drug tests within a matter of weeks as a condition for work and they made no exception for the fact that I just had a similar background check and urine sample taken just weeks prior – by the same testing company!

    It’s a fact of life in America for people who make a living, it’s not unreasonable for people who live on public assistance.

    And there’s even a benefit to the recipient of public funds for this requirement that doesn’t exist for the job applicant. Since one of the leading causes of poverty is substance abuse, such a drug test could identify those people who would benefit from treatment. Any job applicant who failed his drug test would just be out of a job without the benefit of such treatment.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/04/2012 - 09:08 am.

      Your job isn’t essential. Food is. While the government should strive to have a low unemployment rate, it is absolutely essential that the people eat. And if you’re going to throw in fiscal conservation, it’s smarter that they eat. So, really, what you’re suggesting is that we feed less for MORE money. You’re views are not saving us a dime, but rather are just mean-spirited ways of bleeding everyone dry.

      By the way, feel free to back up your statistics.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/04/2012 - 12:53 pm.

        It’s not about saving us money

        If you bothered to read my comments it’s about reasonable expectations of people who are receiving aid from the taxpayers, and asking them to undergo nothing more than what taxpayers undergo on a regular basis, and oh by the way, maybe get some help with your drug probelm, if you have one.

        If your sheltered upbringing and idyllic adulthood have so disconnected you from the real world, Google “poverty and drug use” sometime.

        example: “When asked what is the No. 1 cause of poverty, low-income Americans are much more likely to name drug abuse, and the poorest Americans — those living below the federal poverty level — are nearly twice as likely as middle- and upper-income Americans to rank drug abuse so high.”

        • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 04/04/2012 - 02:30 pm.

          That link does not back up your claim. It is referring to the results of an opinion poll.

          • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/04/2012 - 04:12 pm.

            Opinion polls

            Are better than his usual “evidence”. Oh I wonder what the margin of error was for that polling and how they identified the responders? Was Kiffmeyer around looking for IDs?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/04/2012 - 04:20 pm.

      You seem to think that the benefits mostly go to single adults. Well, it’s the children of these parents that feel the cut-off of benefits the most–whether through time limits or drug-testing of user parents.

      What do you propose to do about these kids? They can go dumpster diving for their food?

      And, by the way, I don’t see that you have ever been a big proponent of increasing spending on drug addiction treatment.

  2. Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 04/04/2012 - 12:58 pm.

    Prove it

    “background checks and drug testing has been a common requirement”

    Perhaps in jobs like truck driving?? I find it hard to believe it is all that common across professions, it may be common in yours, not mine.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 04/04/2012 - 01:45 pm.

    Well said

    This commentary is well said and well argued. It is only the usual suspects on the hard right that expose elemental truths; the same type of people who would have denied access to food in the past are still with us. So I, too, urge you to call or write your representatives.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/04/2012 - 01:54 pm.

      The usual suspects

      are those in comfortable positions who aren’t submitted to the conditions for employment that the rest of us are and who, like the NPR survey shows, are out of touch with the causes of poverty in this society because they’re as far away from it as a person can get.

      • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 04/04/2012 - 02:26 pm.

        Nice try ignoring the issue of hunger and the Hard Right’s hand in limiting access. It’s a good game to blame “those in comfortable positions” for being out of touch. The commentary is clear. But since when does that stop you from muddying the water.

      • Submitted by Channing Florence on 04/04/2012 - 10:32 pm.

        I find it odd

        That those who claim that requiring drug tests in order to receive public assistance under the claim of “we can get you sober” are the very same people who consistently fight against any and all efforts to make such treatments affordable. Vast numbers of people in our prison system are there for drug offenses, and yet treatment programs, GED programs, and work-readiness programs are cut by “conservative” lawmakers on an annual basis.

        I thought the GOP was supposed to be the party of smaller, cheaper, more efficient government. All this does is require more money, more people, more time. All these folks want to do is take my tax money and give it to multinational corporations, which is fine, if they just said so up front. Don’t treat the rest of us as a bunch of fools who can’t be bothered to pick up a book or use google.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/04/2012 - 02:35 pm.

    Mr. Tester is right about drug testing…

    …and wrong about everything else.

    It has become commonplace in certain workplaces, anecdotally speaking, and based on my own experience. I have even seen employment signs in grocery stores which warn applicants they will be drug-tested – i.e., cashiers and stockpersons.

    I don’t like the idea, and I am suspicious that it either has led to surreptitious DNA testing, or will do so in future. If your employer health care premiums are being adjusted every year due to claims experience, wouldn’t it be handy to know if prospective employees were likely to experience a very expensive illness? Why hire someone who might cost you a huge increase in annual business expense?

    The real objections of the right-wingers to public assistance is that they feel the recipients are not worthy. Rather, they see themselves as the people who should primarily benefit from the largesse of government – because they see themselves as providing most of the revenue to government. So while they hate a tax credit that supports someone with a low income, they line up at the trough to get tax credits for their profitable businesses. And they suffer not a trace of cognitive dissonance while doing so.

    That’s why their plans to strip benefits from the poor, disabled, sick, and elderly – most recently in the form of the Ryan budget – is not merely to reduce government expenditures. That’s just step 1. Step 2 is to take the resulting proceeds and give them out as tax reductions to the truly worthy, who of course occupy the upper income brackets.

    Massive transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich is “class warfare”, the real thing.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/04/2012 - 02:43 pm.

    Don’t let the facts get in the way

    Most poor people are children. If you add their parents, those in need of these essential services are women. When you start adding the rest, like the elderly, the mentally ill, you pretty much have a composite of the truly destitute and needy. But the right is still obsessed with the stereotypes of “welfare queens” and pimps and drug dealers who drive Cadillacs as typifying the poor. The right’s use of their power to punish those they deem morally unworthy is really more of a reflection of their own ignorance and bigotry.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/04/2012 - 03:57 pm.

    It’s obvious

    that middleclass white people don’t have a clue about poverty, it’s causes or how to prevent it. Fifty years of government programs and $11 trillion dollars haven’t eliminated poverty because middleclass white people, who’ve never experienced it, are put in charge to solve it. It’ll never be solved until people who have no experience with it listen to people who do.

    • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 04/05/2012 - 09:39 am.

      It’s obvious

      that middle class hard right have no clue about the poverty, it’s causes or how to prevent it. The right has been in power at all levels of government throughout this country and this state and the people have nothing to show for it. Another failure of the right.

  7. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 04/04/2012 - 05:32 pm.

    More Drug Testing

    As long as the lee-government crowd is on the drug testing band wagon, let’s go full bore.

    Let’s drug test all those getting VA benefits: VA hospital patients, those getting VA-backed loans, those buried in national cemeteries (check the cadavers).

    Those benefiting from the mortgage interest deduction? Them too. Homestead property tax credit? We’ll test you too.

    Drive on the big-government highways? Here’s your cup.

    Got a Perkins student loan? Go to a public university? You’re covered too.

    Want to camp in a state park? Ranger Smith will need a sample from everyone in your family first.
    Same deal for that hunting license.

    Got a sweetheart deal on that government paid for baseball stadium? You and all of your employees need to provide a sample.

    I’m so glad the gang that’s always proclaiming personal liberty is under attack has open this Pandora’s Box. Now we can REALLy grow government.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/05/2012 - 09:50 am.

      Here’s another one to add to the list…

      …and those right-wingers will really get behind this one:

      College professors !!

      • Submitted by Diane Nelson on 04/06/2012 - 03:07 pm.

        Just one more occupation

        for the drug test list- radio talk jockeys. Rush alone is justification that the inappropriately medicated should be removed from their position.

  8. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 04/04/2012 - 06:38 pm.

    Welfare testing

    The children of alcoholics & recovering drug addicts & former prison inmates need food, clothing & shelter. What happens to the children of these folks if their parents (who usually can’t find a decent job because of their backgrounds) also can’t obtain food stamps or medical care?
    But the REAL problem with extensive testing is more a matter of logistics and cost effectiveness. Companies that hire drivers or nurses don’t mind investing $35 to screen a new employee. But when social service offices screen all applicants for every service, they are spending $35 each for the drug test, plus an additional $25-30 for a police background check, not to mention a lot of office staff time. So what is the return on investing that $60-$70 (plus staff time) per applicant. When one considers that 80% of “welfare” costs go to medical care, and half of that is for elderly people, over age 65, with a good chunk of the rest for permanently disabled people, that is a great many people who have probably never used illegal drugs. (The facts are that the typical “welfare mother” is 85 years old and resides in a nursing home. REALLY. That’s the truth.) So for every drug addict one screens out, there are probably 90 non-addicts that have just cost the taxpayers $60-$70 (plus social worker time) to screen. Where is the cost-benefit ratio? That’s the real issue here.
    But there’s this pervasive mythology that most welfare recipients are able-bodied, but lazy, drug addicts. Until people learn and accept the truth about where most of the “welfare” money really goes, bills like this will continue to gain traction in legislatures.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/04/2012 - 06:41 pm.

    Not just class warfare

    but Social Darwinism, that good old 19th Century justification for blaming the poor for their own poverty.

    God helps those who help themselves. Therefore, the rich became so because God was pleased with their virtuous effort, seeing it as a sign of their general goodness. The poor, meanwhile, were obviously not virtuous because, if they were, they too would be rich.

  10. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/05/2012 - 09:03 am.

    OK drug testing for anyone

    That receives state or federal money – sugar beet farmers, bankers, elected officials, social security receipents, etc.

  11. Submitted by John Edwards on 04/05/2012 - 10:43 am.

    Do “investments” really save society money?

    Rabbi Kravitz refers to one of many studies claiming immense saving in health care and economic if we transfer money from the people who earn to those who don’t. We have been doing that increasingly since the Great Society programs started in the mid 1960s. A half century later our country is facing monstrous debt and mammoth medical costs. Kravitz’s claim has been debunked by history.

  12. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 04/10/2012 - 09:53 am.

    If it is good for the people to be drug tested….

    Then let’s drug test every politician on a random basis (but no less than once per quarter). Also require them to prove their claims with provable facts–not opinions. Then publish their unproven claims as such–and let the experts have at them. THEN let the public decide.

  13. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/11/2012 - 11:55 am.

    John Edwards: you’re forgetting something

    When the Great Society programs were in full force, they actually did reduce poverty. Furthermore, it’s an exaggeration to say that these programs are still fully available. Of all the Great Society programs, only Head Start exists in its original form. The others are either completely gone, like VISTA, or greatly reduced in scope, like the Job Corps.

    Contrary to popular opinion, what we commonly think of as “welfare” was instituted under the New Deal in the 1930s. It was *conservatives* in the early 1960s who insisted that no family receive benefits if there was a man in the house, even if the man was unemployed.

    Food stamps, another right-wing bugaboo, were expanded from a pilot program to a national program during the administration of that crazy left-wing radical Richard Nixon.

    “Welfare” isn’t the only thing that has happened in the past fifty years, however. The past thirty years have seen an incredible amount of offshoring of the jobs that used to provide a leg-up into the middle class. I spent my elementary school years (the late 1950s and early 1960s) in a Wisconsin city where the two largest employers were manufacturing companies. A high school graduate or even dropout could walk in to either one of these companies and get a job that paid a living wage with benefits. My school classmates were almost all the children of blue collar workers. None of their mothers had outside jobs, and all of the families owned at least a house and a car.

    Where are those jobs now? Where are the jobs that allowed an 18-year-old with only a basic education to save up enough money for a down payment on a house in a few years?

    What today’s 18-year-olds face is an economy of minimum wage service jobs. I’d like you to do the math and figure out how much that is per month and then think about how you would cope on such a low monthly income.

    The usual right-wing answer is to say that people who can’t survive on their current jobs should go to school and learn something more lucrative. But the fact remains that someone has to run the cash register at the convenience store, take care of the children at the daycare center, make the beds in the hotels, wash the sheets and scrubs at the hospital, and fry those fast food burgers.

    We have three choices when it comes to low-income people: 1) We can bring back living-wage jobs, which is what most of them aspire to, 2) We can support them through social services, or 3) We can take the Victorian approach of letting them starve in the streets as unworthy of taking up space, which will lead, as it did in the Victorian era, to levels of crime and vice that make our current levels seem trivial.

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