O P I N I O N
Lately, I have known a few people who have had to utilize the “social safety net” because of sudden job loss or other situations where the ability to afford basic necessities for their families became a major struggle. (It doesn’t help that the cost of living has increased across the board).
The so-called social safety net has its proponents, like me, who believe that it is needed on a limited basis to help give people who find themselves in need of a “hand up” so that they can continue on with their lives of self-sufficiency. And of course there are times where young people find themselves in situations where they made decisions that led to them needing a little nudge so that they can become self-sufficient. Although I believe that a social safety net should be available, first and foremost I believe that help should first originate from the church as well as nonprofits. Problem is that many people do not want to have much to do with the church and giving to nonprofits, (especially charitable nonprofits that provide for basic needs).
Some opponents of any social safety net believe that we all make our own decisions and therefore need to figure it out. And as far as young people making bad choices, well, they have to deal with them. Now of course this is extreme as I do not know many people who think that “black or white” when referring to the social safety net. Most people like to think of things on a case-by-case basis. We want help to be available, but are cautious because there have been instances when the system is overused – and it leaves a sour taste in our mouths when we know of people who are abusing the system – and getting away with it.
For example, I’ll never forget the time when Jackie and I were struggling college students buying noodles and hamburger (back when it was cheap), and there was a lady with multiple kids in front of us who paid for her food with a SNAP card, then the guy who was with her proceeded with their second order, which consisted of seafood, high-end steak, and other rather expensive items. He then paid with cash from his gold money clip full of high-denomination bills. This one-off situation of course gave us a first-hand look at someone likely abusing the system. But then we saw an elderly lady in another lane trying to use her SNAP card and the cashier impatiently helping her. This of course made us feel better because we should be helping our elders, right?
Path to Self-Sufficiency or Dependency
The major issue that I have with our social safety net is that it does not really bring people to self-sufficiency (as far as I’ve seen). The system as it is currently set up creates dependency. I think that New Hampshire does a good job at being sure that clients continue to meet eligibility requirements by recertifying people on a consistent basis (my friend recertified every three months). The problem is that there is little allowance for those who are working toward true self-sufficiency in our system. When qualifying (or recertifying) one is asked about all income that they receive, even small one-time gifts. The income is matched against limits established by the department, and a decision is made. Of course, the calculations are more complicated than that, but the client often does not know how – or why – items are calculated.
Confusing and Arbitrary Rules
Another issue is that the established rules are often arbitrary or confusing. For example, a single vehicle for the family (in some cases) is allowed, but when trying to find out what is allowed, you are told to apply to see if you qualify. What?
Or one could ask for an overview of qualifications for various programs and get something like this. Again…what? The question that I have is where these rules came from. Were they based on political ideology, pandering to one’s political base, or actually trying to help people?
I totally understand and support preventing abuse and fraud within our public benefit system, but think that the rules need to be more clear and less arbitrary. Isn’t it easier to commit abuse within a confusing and arbitrary system rather than one that is easy to understand and transparent?
I know that the state does offer limited programs to help people train or retrain for jobs, such as the Workplace Success Program for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families aka cash assistance) recipients, and the SNAP Employment & Training Program for SNAP (Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program [formerly food stamp program]) recipients.
In New Hampshire, your combined bank balance must be $2,001 or less ($3,001 if a member of the household is over 60 or has a disability), to qualify for SNAP. How can one be following a path to self-sufficiency when their allowed bank balance is less than what is required to secure an apartment?
Limiting resources, setting arbitrary rules, and limiting “liquid” assets causes people to choose between feeding their families and making enough money to be self-sufficient. There is no buffer…hit the limit and benefits end. Is this truly the best way to do this? Some may avoid the tough decision of exceeding the limits or feeding their families by simply hiding assets or income. Is this what we want?
Any solution will require thoughtful proposals from people with varying perspectives. True solutions will require that the first and foremost thought is to help people and not how much political capital ideas are going to cost.
It is difficult to create solutions to cover every situation, so maybe a set of general guidelines then decisions be made on a case-by-case basis. Or maybe allow someone who qualifies to make a higher income than the limit or have more than $2,001 in their bank accounts for six months while building a business to become self-sufficient, then have them recertify with explanation. (Personally, I would much rather pay a little more for someone actually following a path to self-sufficiency than to pay less for someone who is just collecting benefits).
These are my thoughts. Got ideas? Email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org