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Charles McElwee: Consider ‘Poor No More’ prescription for WV

By By Charles McElwee

Author, Peter Cove, having spent 50 years working to help the poor in administering various federal welfare programs, proposes what he calls a “radical solution” to long-term dependency on welfare.

His “solution,” in his own words, is to “abolish all cash welfare, as well as food and housing assistance — except for the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled — in order to move from a dependency culture to one of full employment.”

Cove points out that since the mid-1960’s, $19 trillion have been spent on welfare programs (which, coincidentally, is about the amount of the current U.S. national debt), and have reduced the poverty rate from 17 percent in 1965 to only 14.5 percent in 2014, nearly 50 years later.

The author “would wipe the slate clean, take all the money saved, and create jobs — first in the private sector and then, as a last resort, in the public one.

In consequence, Cove states, “We will return our country to a work ethic and steer in away from dependency. We will solve poverty with work — a job for all who are able.”

Cove’s experience provides credible grounds for seriously considering the merits of his proposal. Born in 1940 in a liberal Jewish household, Cove by his mid-20s, at the inception of President Johnson‘s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which he actively supported, was antiwar, against segregation, and believed that business was corrupt. He was in the trenches of that “War” for some 50 years.

Public polls indicate that 83 percent of Americans favor a work condition for receiving welfare.

The current federal welfare system discourages work in that increased wages often result in a disproportionate drop in welfare benefits. A welfare recipient can lose more than $1 in benefits for each $1 earned from a job.

Welfare includes government programs to support low-income Americans in order to protect them from poverty. These welfare programs fit into 13 large categories with their federal spending in fiscal year 2016:

1. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a food program for low-income individuals that used to be called the food stamp program, $78 billion.

2. Housing assistance, $49 billion.

3. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provides cash to low-income individuals over 65 years of age or under 65 if the individual is blind or disabled, $62 billion.

4. Pell Grants distribute up to $5,550 to students from low-income households to promote postsecondary education, $29 billion.

5. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) pays cash to low-income households with the goal of moving individuals from welfare to work, $16 billion.

6. Child Nutrition provides food programs for targeted children from low-income households that include school lunch, breakfast, and after school, $22 billion.

7. Head Start, a pre-school program available to kids from low-income families, $11 billion.

8. Job Training Programs consist of a myriad of training programs to provide job training, displacement, and employment services generally targeting low-income Americans, $6 billion.

9. Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides healthy food to pregnant women and children up to 5 years of age, $6 billion.

10. Child Care consists of block grants to states and local public and private agencies which administer child care programs to low-income families, $6 billion.

11. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) aids low-income households that pay a high proportion of household income for home energy, either heating or cooling a residential dwelling, $2 billion.

12. Lifeline provides discounted phone service, including cell phone, to low-income individuals, $3 billion.

13. Negative Income Tax distributes money through tax credits to low-income Americans who owe no income tax for the year, $83 billion.

The total federal spending in fiscal year 2016 for these programs amounted to $373 billion.

Federal spending for fiscal year 2016 for Medicaid to provide health care for low-income individuals and families amounted to $367 billion, nearly the same amount.

Together, the amount spent in fiscal year 2016 totaled $740 billion.

While the federal government each year establishes annual household income for measuring poverty, such as $12,071 for a single person household in 2014, each of the 13 federal welfare programs has its own income qualification standards for participation, such as 130 percent of the poverty threshold for SNAP.

A story by Paul Nyden in 2014 recites that “West Virginia gets more money per person from federal government programs than any other state in the country.”

According to other data, West Virginia ranks sixth among the states in having 19.59 percent of its population on food stamps, has the highest percentage of its working-age population (nearly 9 percent) receiving Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits, and is last in having the lowest labor force participation rate (52.8 percent) in the nation.

With that background in mind, consider Cove’s recommendation: “No more welfare except for those who truly cannot work for mental or physical reasons. No more poverty programs, which, despite spending over $22 trillion since the mid-1960’s, have had no measurable effect on the poverty rates in our country. And then a redeployment of these funds for creating jobs in the private sector and as a last choice, in the public.”

Cove recommends that “initial jobs created would go to the 2.35 million to 4.6 million able-bodied nonworking food stamp recipients without dependents, the 900,000 current adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and an estimated 25 percent of current SSDI recipients, or 2.2 million individuals, who upon review of their disability diagnosis would be found capable of work after all. These populations would be required to participate in the jobs program.”

Charles McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with Robinson & McElwee PLLC. Reach him at

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