Social Assistance Reform Isn't Cruel; It's Necessary

Recently, the Trump administration has caught fire from the media for a straightforward attempt to reform the long outdated food stamps program -- officially titled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Rather than doling out food stamps, which could hypothetically be used for almost any food, Trump’s proposal would be to deliver an assortment of canned goods, including peanut butter, pasta, juice, and powdered milk to intended recipients.

This reform has been called cruel, or even “inhuman,” by critics.

And yes, there are flaws with this plan. Most notably, the costs of assembling and shipping these packages around the country would probably limit, if not eliminate, the $129 billion it was intended to save. However, we can’t adopt the mentality that reshaping social assistance programs is cruel or inhuman. It’s necessary if we want to pave the way to a balanced budget and, more importantly, to a population that’s better served.

Why Social Assistance Reform Is Necessary

The amount of money we spend on welfare programs is staggering. In 2011, welfare was spread across 83 overlapping programs, which cost a combined total of more than $1.03 trillion, which is more than we spent on Social Security, Medicare, or our national defense.

There are several problems here:

  • Sheer total spending. Let that $1.03 trillion figure sink in for a second -- that’s “trillion,” with a “T.” That’s something on the order of $3,300 of spending for every man, woman, and child in the country. Considering only 45 million Americans are below the poverty line, that’s more like $22,800 of spending for every individual in poverty, which is easily a full-time salary. This spending is part of the reason why this country is so deep in debt, and it’s time we acknowledged that.
  • Allocation of assistance. We also need to consider how easy it is to get government benefits. It’s possible for anyone, even individuals with ample job prospects and tons of savings, to leech off unemployment benefits for longer than they need to. It’s also possible to get food stamps if you have a moderate income, because the program is generous -- and from there, there’s no telling whether an individual will use those credits to buy nutritious, beneficial foods. It’s even possible to exchange those credits off-market for non-food items.
  • Overlap. The overlap between benefit and assistance programs is another source of concern. With more than 83 distinct programs, it’s possible for some people to collect benefits in multiple areas, while other, more needy people, end up with less total assistance. Some efforts are purely redundant and would be much better served if streamlined.

These three factors alone make the prospect of social assistance reform a practical necessity. But how can we do it without being labeled as “cruel?”

Privatizing Assistance

One option is to move social assistance to the private sector. There are already companies and nonprofit organizations working to help individuals in poverty find jobs, get access to important resources, and even rebuild their personal credit. This would be an enormous shift, and one that we couldn’t force, but as we start making cuts and cleaning up the governmental structure, new nonprofits and companies would move in to fill the void.

Consolidating Benefits

One of the most important things we need to do is consolidate the dozens of assistance programs that end up overlapping, and failing to serve the needs of the people they were intended to help. Consider this: the cost of a universal basic income program could ultimately be less than what we’re paying in our social assistance programs. We could provide a basic, livable salary to every person in need for less than what we’re currently paying in programs that have failed to alleviate poverty for decades. We don’t necessarily support UBI, but it’s a perfect illustration of how consolidated benefits are extraordinarily more efficient.

Diagnosing Needs

We also need to do a better job of diagnosing and addressing the specific needs of individuals applying for these programs. Rather than simply asking for an income level and providing lumped benefits, we need to screen people, assess their unique needs, and allocate benefits appropriately. Trump has suggested drug testing, to mixed kinds of criticism, as one way to filter out people who might abuse the system, but there are many potential ways to more accurately assess needs.

So is it “cruel” to want to spend money more efficiently? Or get the right benefits in the right hands? That seems like a stretch, considering we’re already doling out more than a trillion dollars’ worth of benefits, and it isn’t fixing the problem. It’s time we got serious about redrawing the social assistance programs meant to alleviate poverty and stop nitpicking every decision that changes the current system.