I am a proud Arizona Democrat and have supported our party’s presidential candidates in every election since I became eligible to vote in 1962. Since Bill Clinton’s election I have considered myself a centrist Democrat who strives to emulate the examples set by President Clinton, Gabby Giffords and numerous other centrist leaders and lawmakers within our party’s ranks. In that spirit I fully supported passage of the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform act of 1996, which paved the way for millions of Americans to rise above welfare through securing gainful, living wage employment.
On Thursday, September 19, the House voted to cut $4 billion a year, a 5 percent reduction, from our nation’s food stamp budget. The measure is also designed to end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely. The narrow margin of approval (217-210) closely followed party lines, with Democratic voters united in opposition and some moderate Republicans also objecting to the measure.
Placing the proposed 5 percent reduction in perspective, over 47 million Americans are now on food stamps and the program’s cost has more than doubled over the past five years. While the proposed reduction primarily targets able-bodied adults without dependents, the bill also imposes a new work requirement that would allow states to require a minimum of 20 hours per week of work activities from any able-bodied adult with a child over age 1, provided that child care is available. The work requirements would also be applicable to all parents whose children are over age 6 and attending school.
To my way of thinking, the proposed 5 percent reduction in total food stamps funding, combined with reasonable work requirements for recipients that run parallel to requirements imposed by the welfare reform act of 1996, represent a positive step in the right direction.
To be sure, while the 2008/2009 Great Recession is technically over, our official unemployment rate hovers well above 7 percent and these figures exclude legions of Americans who have dropped out of the workforce in the face of exceedingly trying times. This dismal reality is clearly out of step with the American dream.
By the same token, the uncontrolled growth in total pay-outs for entitlement benefits, particularly payments for welfare, food stamps and disability, is a serious cause of concern that our current administration has failed to address. Again, costs associated with food stamps have more that doubled over the past five years, and disability claims awarded to people formerly in the workforce have increased by 44 percent since 2003. According to figures released by the Social Security Administration this past April, a total of 10,962,532 people are now receiving SSI disability payments, including 8,865,568 disabled persons, 160,710 spouses and 1,936,236 children. These numbers exclude both VA data reflecting claims for disabled veterans, and approximately 1 million former American workers collecting Workers Compensation claims. The average monthly payment for SSI disability recipients is $977.50, factoring in the disabled and their spouses and children. In addition, most people on disability receive Medicare coverage. Some sobering statistics: there are now only 13 Americans working full-time for each worker on disability, compared with a ratio of 52:1 in 1968.
On the one hand we have a corporate community hoarding billions of dollars in cash, while continuing to lay off workers and offering precious little in the way of meaningful new jobs. According to a recent IRS release, the richest 1 percent of Americans now earn close to 20 percent of total household income, and the top 10 percent pulled in more that 48 percent of total earnings in 2012. Our middle class is rapidly disappearing, and the gap between the richest and the rest of America is reportedly the highest since the Roaring ’20s.
At the same time, our populous is rapidly transforming into a culture of entitlement, whereby millions of able-bodied and able-minded Americans are by choice opting to go on the dole rather than seeking gainful employment – and encouraging their peers to do the same.
There is something drastically wrong with this picture! Neither extreme portends well for our nation’s economic future – and we are witnessing an accelerating deterioration of our nation’s moral fiber and ambitious work ethic that once made our country great.
We desperately need a purposeful and decisive public-private partnership between our nation’s business and educational communities and government entities at all levels, focused on creating gainful living wage employment with upward mobility for all able-bodied and able-minded adult Americans, with the exception of mothers who opt to serve as full-time homemakers. We must restore the former implicit contract between workers and employers, whereby an employer would virtually guarantee hard-working employees continuous employment and fair prospects for gaining upward mobility. We also need to re-instill among our American public a wholesome work ethic and sense of pride in workmanship.
These are goals truly worthy of a country that once again aspires to rise to the level of a truly great nation. I must confess, however, that my underlying concern regarding our ability to translate these goals into reality boils down to a very real nagging question – is our nation, including our governmental and business leaders, especially our current administration and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, together with our corporate leadership – and the rest of us - truly up to the task!