Tahlequah Daily Press

March 6, 2013

Can’t work? Then volunteer


TAHLEQUAH — Last week, a measure to reform social programs breezed through the Oklahoma House Human Services Committee. Elements of this bill should be palatable for both progressives and conservatives, because it’s not just aimed at bootstrapping beneficiaries into getting jobs; it could simultaneously provide benefits to society as a whole.

House Bill 1909 shines a spotlight on key initiatives rolled out by Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, but it’s not a new plan of action. Rather, it’s a return to an old and highly successful mandate implemented in 1996 while Bill Clinton was in the White House: the so-called “welfare-to-work” program.

H.B. 1909 would require able-bodied beneficiaries of “welfare” to perform at least 35 hours of “work activities” to receive assistance. There’s an important caveat: The law would only apply to people ages 18 to 50, who are neither disabled nor raising a child. And, here’s the part that could really provide a boost to communities: The activities can include job-seeking and career training, volunteer work, and/or education directly related to job opportunities.

Joe Griffin, House communications director, explained that the “welfare-to-work” concept was an essential component of the 1996 welfare reform law’s anti-poverty strategy. But on the heels of the economic meltdown of 2009, The Recovery Act included a waiver that temporarily nullified stipulations for benefits. H.B. 1909, Griffin said, disables the waiver and restores those requirements, plus expands the law to cover the food stamp program.

Griffin said House leaders think the refined measure will help build on the success of the earlier program, and perhaps make Oklahoma a model for the rest of the nation. Jobs are out there, he said, but people often need more education or training to qualify. He also stressed benefits will not be cut, nor will the requirements be imposed on older or disabled folks, or those raising young children.

H.B. 1909 seems to be a workable tool in the quest for welfare reform. Though many believe society is obliged to help provide for the “least among us,” no one would deny there is abuse in the system. And social programs weren’t really intended to be permanent; they were designed to give temporary relief to those down on their luck.

There’s a bottom line, though, as pointed out by State Rep. Mike Brown: The bill comes with a hefty price tag of $18,783,433. Because of the economic downturn, since 2009, Oklahoma has seen a 20 percent increase in caseloads, but at the same time, a 12 percent reduction in staff in county offices. This projection includes the cost of additional staff, development of work components, contractual costs, training, and system changes.

In other words, if the idea is to save the state some money, that probably won’t happen. If making people more productive is the issue, it should work.

Many have long advocated for social program beneficiaries to “give something back” to the community around them. If taxpayers are going to help an individual, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for the person to repay the favor in whatever small way he or she can. For folks not having luck getting jobs at the moment, it only makes sense to seek training to augment the skills they already possess.

But the “volunteer” aspect of this bill is perhaps its most attractive feature. Many wonderful charities, organizations and institutions could benefit from some extra helping hands. Whether it be manning a crisis hotline, serving as a CASA advocate, helping build a Habitat home, or engaging in myriad other projects, beneficiaries can bulk up their resumes while contributing to causes not so very different from their own. It can instill a melded sense of pride, self-esteem and accomplishment that is too often suppressed in people who have been without jobs for lengthy periods.

Shannon said, “If we reduce the number of people on government subsidies, social programs can be better directed toward those who truly need the assistance.” There’s no doubt resources are limited, and thus should go to those who most deserve and need them. While it’s not always our place to judge the circumstances of others, we can ask those who are able to contribute to society. That seems fair.