Keep America from going Greek
By Jay Ambrose
Catch a cab in Zakynthos, a beautiful hunk of Greece in the Ionian Sea, and you may find the driver is blind. Or maybe he isn't, even though he says he is to get a $462 monthly check from the government. The guess is that some 600 people on this facetiously designated "island of the blind" are faking the handicap to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense.
But the mayor wants ophthalmologist tests of everyone getting the benefit, which has caused some to throw eggs at him, says the Christian Science Monitor. It tells this story, including mention of the deceiving taxi driver, to illustrate what's gone wrong in the sinking welfare state of Greece.
Some Greeks, like the Zakynthos mayor, have done at least a little to try to keep the country afloat, but then there are the whiners getting in the way, and it is clear to me that not nearly enough change is on the way.
We're not changing enough in our own homeland of America, either. Of course, we're no Greece, but we are a lot closer than I suspect most realize. We have our own programs that invite lying, and the Census Bureau has given us a wake-up call with its information that, in the first quarter of 2011, very nearly half of all American households had at least one member receiving government benefits.
This adds up to enormous deficits and dangerous debt, causing the Heritage Foundation to warn that, minus reversal, the connected fiscal and welfare trends could force us to "face economic and social collapse." Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey recently put it more colorfully when he said we were in danger of turning into a "paternalistic entitlement society" in which people sit around waiting for the next government check as economic growth is slowed down.
Criticism of Christie came quickly even though there is no end to the facts and figures that back him up.
In a Feb. 11 analysis, The New York Times noted that benefit programs in one Minnesota county distributed an average of $6,583 for every person living there. Nationally, it said, government programs distribute a dollar in benefits "for every $4 in other income."
Michael Tanner of Cato has written that the federal and state governments spend $1 trillion a year on means-tested, anti-poverty programs even before you get to all the money that goes to the middle class. According to other analyses, there are 79 welfare programs in a federal government now spending twice as much on welfare as when the War on Poverty began in the 1960s.
Among the programs needing surgery in a hurry is Social Security Disability, which, costs $132 billion a year, serves 11 million people and will soon be serving lots more minus change. Whereas it was once open only to those with terminal illnesses and long-term impairment, it is now open to people with depression, back pain and other inflictions not objectively measurable. For some struggling to find work, the program has become a substitute, and its fast-paced growth will be stymied only with a redrawing of eligibility requirements.
Virtually all the federal transfer-payment programs need fixing, and an example of how success can be found is the way more state control, time limits and work requirements in 1996 transformed what once was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Despite loudly voiced fears of throwing a million more children into squalor, the reforms got single mothers off welfare rolls and into the workforce and actually removed children from poverty while saving billions of dollars. The revised program ― Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ― has been tinkered with since then, in some ways abused by states and has come under criticism during the recent recession, but one report notes that single mothers are still working more and fewer of their children are poor than earlier.
Throw eggs if you want, but widespread welfare reform would improve lives and help keep America from becoming more and more like Greece.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.