A few months ago, I wrote an article about the welfare system and budget cuts, in which I described a household of 10 people that was getting $16,000 a year in government benefits. The figure was relatively high because one member of the family had been able to tap temporarily into the Social Security system, which is vastly more generous than welfare; even now, for reasons too complicated to go into, the household's government income has gone down to $11,500 a year, and in 1986 it will be reduced again.
Anyway, the article got me onto the radio call-in show circuit; the people who book guests for these shows know that the subject of welfare keeps the phone lines lit up. By now I have spent hours being berated about the $16,000-a-year welfare family by people who say that "as a taxpayer," it burns them up.
On the other hand we have William Schroeder. The federal government employed him for 18 years; pays him its famously generous pension; subsidized in many indirect ways the artificial heart that, at a cost well into the six figures, Humana is giving him; and when the president of the United States called him, what he wanted to talk about was what was holding up his Social Security disability check.
Did this make anyone mad, "as a taxpayer"? Of course not. Reagan was entirely apologetic, in keeping with his current down-to-the-last-penny support of the Social Security system. The television news show I watched that night somberly reported that Schroeder was a victim of a "double tragedy." His disability check was hand-delivered the next day.
It seems that we have an infinite capacity for sternness toward people on welfare and an infinite capacity for empathy toward people on middle-class entitlement programs. Nobody today would dare to suggest a cost- of-living adjustment in welfare benefits, which haven't gone up in years; but it's an act of great political courage even to suggest that the Social Security COLA be postponed.
The view among conservative social scientists that cutting welfare actually helps the poor by reducing the temptation to go on the dole is ascendant right now, and that reinforces the anti-welfare mood of the country. Clearly, with the outcry from experts and the public, we should do something about welfare. But what?
I have the answer. Welfare (like food stamps and Medicaid) is means-tested -- that is, you have to have an income below a certain figure to qualify. The solution to the welfare mess is to make it reverse means- tested. To be eligible for welfare, you'd have to be making over, say, $10,000 a year.
Think of all the advantages of this simple reform. First of all, there would be no lazy bums on welfare, just decent, hard-working Americans like you and me, so it would be okay to pay them the money. Sure, there would still be an incentive for the poor to get on welfare -- but it would operate in reverse, spurring them on to work hard enough to make their $10,000. If a poor person were making only $7,000 a year working full-time at the minimum wage, why he'd just have to get a second job before he could qualify for welfare.
There would be no more political attacks on welfare, because virtually all voters would be on it. It would become our most popular program overnight, and soon the benefits would reach an adequate level, with twice-a-year raises, of course. There would be no more nonsense about how benefit levels should be determined at "the local level" either -- there would surely be a national standard, just as the big middle-class programs have.
I know what you're thinking: it sounds great, but how are we going to pay for it? No problem. Although welfare today is about 1 percent of the federal budget, everybody thinks it's 50 percent (if you don't believe me, go on a radio call-in show), so if it really were 50 percent nobody would mind. What about the deficit? Well, we're just now in the process of deciding to pretend it isn't there -- so who cares?
Maybe my welfare reform isn't strictly necessary, but then again, neither are a lot of federal programs. Lord knows most of us could use a few extra dollars, especially during those "in-between" times not covered by Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance or tax deductions. No matter what we did with our welfare checks, spend or save, it would strengthen the economy. And we could feel a warm glow from the knowledge that after all the budget cuts, we were finally doing something positive for the poor.