President Donald Trump recently called for getting “millions” of welfare recipients back to work. He also has called for a major effort to deal with the crumbling infrastructure that faces cities and states all across the country. Is it a serious problem?
The city of New Orleans reports that their water pipes are more than 100 years old. This past year, at the end of a rainy 10 days, South Carolina closed more than 80 roads, 36 bridges and there were 32 dam failures. Do you remember the Interstate-35 Mississippi River Bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007 that killed 13 and injured 145? Should I mention the Flint, Michigan water system disaster? These, according to our experts, are just the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps there is a change in approach with our welfare program that could benefit our problem with infrastructure. What if welfare became workfare? Welfare was originally designed to create a hand-UP for people in difficulty rather than a hand-OUT, which it seems to have become. In 40 years of working with public entities of various purposes, I have never met a person, Democrat or Republican, who wants to give money to able people who refuse to work.
Two decades ago, we had 4 million adults on welfare, more than six times the number of 638,000 we have today. With fewer numbers on the welfare rolls it seems an ideal time to go back to something that worked almost a century ago. It is time to recreate workfare, to tie our support for the unemployed to productive work.
During the Great Depression, we had large numbers of men and women out of work and we had major infrastructure problems all across the country. The Federal Government devised a workfare program to provide subsistence aid to families but only when a member of the family would enroll in one of a number of programs that provided productive work. With the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt people went back to work nation-wide through the CCC, the WPA, and several other workfare programs. The Roosevelt Great Depression programs provided no welfare, only workfare.
The stated purpose of the CCC and the WPA was, “to provide one paid job for all families where the breadwinner suffered from long term unemployment.” The focus was on work rather than “the dole” because work “promoted self-respect, reinforced the work ethic, and provided skills training and experience.”
The CCC program was set up for young men ages 17–28 and provided work, subsistence while on the job, and a salary, 90 percent of which was sent home. During its time from 1933 to 1942, the young men of the CCC planted 3 billion trees, built lodges and trails in our parks and wilderness areas, and created or improved parks in more than 800 cities nation-wide. The WPA was focused on roads, bridges, and public buildings. Together the two programs employed more than 14 million men and women.
I grew up in a small town in southern Missouri that had a public park, swimming pool, and paved streets all supplied by one or another of these workfare programs.
Today, perhaps more than at any other time in the past 60 years we are in good position to give workfare another try. Our welfare rolls are low and our infrastructure needs are the greatest they have been in many years. Our new president has promised a major thrust into infrastructure renewal with an emphasis on roads and bridges nation-wide.
We are the richest nation in the world with the highest standard of living. We continue to prove that we are not going to let our least fortunate citizens go without food or shelter. The issue for us is welfare or workfare. I vote for workfare. As the popular Michael J. Fox movie told us, you can go, “Back to the Future,” and we should.
— Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states. Books by Hopkins currently available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble include “Journey to Gettysburg” and “The Wounds of War,” both Civil War-era novels, and “The World As It Was When Jesus Came.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.