The Tennessean, May 28, 2008: Education, economic policy are keys to avoiding welfare

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It should surprise no one that recent federal statistics show an increase in welfare rolls in the nation. The economic slowdown and some of the painful fallout many families are feeling from it would make it natural to assume welfare numbers would climb.

USA Today recently reported that welfare rolls increased about .6 percent in the last half of 2007, with 27 states showing increases. Tennessee officials say this state’s welfare rolls have shown no distinct change in the Families First program, the state’s version of welfare. There has been some criticism of the numbers cited by USA Today, pointing out, for example, that even where welfare rolls are climbing, there is not solid proof that it is solely because of an economic downturn. Nevertheless, the economic trends should put every state on notice that welfare rolls might well rise.

That calls for being ready if and when the time comes. And while Tennessee may not have a welfare crisis on its hand, or while Tennessee is not even seeing any sizable increase in the number of families needing assistance, the same principles for avoiding a welfare problem happen to be the same efforts already under way in state and local government. The state must keep a focus on education and a sharp eye on the work force, because those factors will ultimately affect the degree of poverty in the state.

The nation has seen an overhaul of the welfare system, launched in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton made the line familiar that welfare should be a “hand up, not a hand out,” and an emphasis was put on limiting assistance while putting more people to work. Tennessee’s Families First has seemed to follow the national trend.

But it’s only natural to assume that welfare rolls should be under watch. If those numbers begin to climb significantly, government will have yet another complicated challenge in meeting the needs of people slipping into need. Given the financial crisis that has reached so far and so deep, it would be foolish not to assume more people might be seeking temporary help.

But Tennessee appears to be on the right track for meeting such a challenge. The state is managing its money in a way that reflects recent economic pressures. But the state is not operating in a way that indicates panic. At the local level, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has made education and economic development among his highest priorities. Dean and other Nashville leaders see that those two issues are connected and are key to sustaining a strong work force. A focus on education should show results in graduation rates, and graduation rates have a lot to do with the strength of the work force. Getting a solid education and preparing for a career are not just good ideas for a path in life but a fundamental element of building a sustainable economy.

The nation has come a long way on welfare. Assistance was at a level at one point that there was a substantial public backlash. Government leaders responded to that backlash with meaningful reforms in the welfare system. But the principles of government assistance should not disappear because of the history of the concept. If there are conditions where decent, honest people need that hand up, they should get it. That’s the only way a caring society should look at it. The nation should always be committed to identifying those who are struggling and help them get on their feet.

Stereotypes have long painted people on welfare as people who all want to be on welfare, and that’s just not the case. Many people who are struggling want to get off the public dole and are willing to work hard to do so. Sometimes, conditions make it difficult to get on better footing without some temporary help. Wherever that need exists, the nation should be prepared to offer it.

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