President Trump! HUD Secretary Carson! Whoever else in the administration who needs to listen! Get Peter Cove on the phone right now and put him in charge of everything having to do with entitlements, welfare, poverty, etc. Cove's new book Poor No More: Rethinking Dependency and the War on Poverty changes the paradigm of poverty programs and seems to fit with the tone and priorities of the Trump administration. More importantly, the ideas Cove writes about are proven to work--unlike many of the failed policies of several decades of the War on Poverty.
Cove is no right winger. He started out like many in the 1960s with great ideals and a passion for helping the poor through government programs. His influence reached to Clinton's welfare reform measures, as well as to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans. His primary outlet now is a job placement program called America Works.
Cove's early experiences in the War on Poverty demonstrated to him that much poor support does not lead to a reduction of poverty. "Though I began as a true believer in the War on Poverty, the more time I spent in the field, the more aware I became of just how miserably our efforts had failed." He has come to the conclusion that the United States should "eliminate all welfare programs except those geared toward people who truly cannot work due to physical or mental problems. . . . We [should] scuttle all poverty programs, including everything from Head Start to Food Stamps."
The bottom line for Cove is this: replace dependency with work. The best fix for poverty is work. The "best way to get clients off welfare was to find them paid work immediately." Simple cash transfers, job training programs, the disparagement of low-paid work, all have combined to actually make things worse for the poor. The stigma of dependency has been erased. "We have edged toward a moral cliff where the shame of being dependent on government aid has been replaced by a breezy bonhomie for entitlement." Programs that should focus on "lifting individuals out of poverty" instead end up "making them more comfortable in poverty."
Cove's experience with America Works, an employment agency that specializes in placing traditionally hard-to-serve populations in jobs while providing support and training, has demonstrated that a "work-first" approach has far better success than a job-training approach. Cove proposes "support for work and if there are some social needs that must be met, they will be done in the context of a job, not as a handout for staying at home." Part of his plan includes putting former welfare recipients to work on infrastructure jobs. This is where Trump's campaign rhetoric can dovetail with the great needs of the nation's unemployed. Trump! Call Cove! Work this out! Republicans might object to the spending that an infrastructure jobs plan would require, but I would rather pay people to build roads and bridges than pay them to sit at home and collect a check!
Will this be easy? No. Will there be opposition? Always. But Cove has data on his side. On a relatively small scale, he has the great success of America Works. On a larger scale, he has the evidence from the 1996 welfare bill. The work requirement directly led to the reduction of the welfare rolls. The rolling back of the work requirement since then increased them. Simple as that.
Is a work first plan insensitive to the poor? No. Work improves mental health and self-esteem. It improves family life. It improves community life. It improves interpersonal relationships. Most importantly, the culture of dependency that we have built has devastated poor families and communities. Cove's ideas and plans are right, and their implementation can't come soon enough.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!