George Ferris III, MBA, is a Fellow, Economic Empowerment at the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy
"Mom, I have great news!" I said, having never been more excited to call my mother. Growing up, we were poor, but my mom worked hard to ensure we didn't lack, and I now had a chance to thank her. "I earned a bonus and want to send you half. I know money has been tight. Hopefully, this creates breathing room for the next few months."
There was a pause on the line, followed by something that would change my life. "I need you to send it to me in cash." My mother explained that if she didn't receive this one-time gift in cash, the government would see it as income and reduce her benefits permanently. She told me that working harder and building a better future would cost her the ability to provide for my siblings today. No one should have to choose between their current welfare and a better future for the whole family.
Government assistance has long had an issue with "the cliff," where someone's benefits are more than the income from a job. In other words, their benefits are cut disproportionally if they take an entry-level position. This cliff traps people on government assistance and teaches a cruel, generation-changing lesson, "Don't try to advance yourself too much, or your family will go hungry."
This Faustian Bargain can lead a person down one of two paths -- giving up or sacrificing all to get out. Giving up breeds intergenerational poverty and government dependence, living under the thumb of another. Whereas doing anything to get out generates individuals ripe for the abuses of gangs, drug dealers, and pimps. People who find themselves needing government assistance deserve better and certainly deserve better options.
Society wrestles with social justice and ensuring everyone is paying their fair share. But, part of that discussion must be about giving people a hand up, not merely a handout. Being told to take an EBT card and stay in their place is repugnant. When our fellow citizen is drowning in the struggles of life, are we caring for them by giving just enough support to keep them treading water? Is it compassion that we abandon them when they try to stop drowning, leaving them to sink yet again? We must do better.
To address "the cliff," there needs to be a gradual reduction in benefits as a person gets a job. For example, if someone gets $2500 a month in benefits and gets a job paying $1500 a month, reduce the value of their benefits by $1250. This reduction saves the taxpayer $1250, which we would not save if someone receives benefits for life, and empowers someone on services to gain marketable skills without risk to their family.
But addressing the cliff only solves half of the problem. Many people on long-term government assistance don't have the skills to apply for, interview for, or maintain a job. Moreover, the stresses of constantly living in survival mode on social services can cause mental health issues. The consistent traumatic stress cannot be ignored. We should invest in skills and career services for anyone who spends a year receiving them. We should also provide mental health counseling for this demographic to address the mental stresses connected to long-term government assistance.
Choosing not to address social services is choosing to handicap our society. We lose out on people's contributions to the community; we shut down innovative minds and ambitious spirits. They lose out on their economic future, mental health, and the chance to give back. This injustice will persist until we recognize that jobs are justice.