Welfare Run Amok

January 22, 1995

Every taxpayer who wants government to use money wisely and in a manner helpful to the nation and its citizens will be appalled by the story in The Sun today about a Louisiana family that receives $46,716 a year, non-taxable, from the $25 billion Supplemental Security Income program, one of the chief federal welfare efforts.

But the bigger outrage is not the money that a resourceful mother has succeeded in extracting for herself, her common-law husband and all seven of her children -- based on claims of mental or medical disability -- but the fact that the government, especially Congress, is the real villain in this story. Most distressing of all is the failure of the House and Senate to ensure that this federal largess is used to help alleviate the disabilities that this program is supposed to address.

Veteran Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia calls SSI "a well-intentioned entitlement program run amok." He has lamented "the damage that is being done to our children in teaching them that their future lies not in hard work but in ripping off the government for benefits." If the former Senate Democratic leader feels that way, imagine the cries of outrage from conservative Republicans now in control of Congress.

In a series of articles this week, The Sun will describe not only how families on SSI amass incomes greater than their working neighbors. It will report on government lapses that permit abuses involving aliens and drug/alcohol addicts. Congress undoubtedly will seek remedies. But the gaping flaws in the haphazardly built SSI program reflect the difficulties and ambiguities that arise when society tries to help unfortunate citizens in the face of predictable attempts at exploitation. That so many elements are involved -- lawmakers, administrators, JTC judges, advocates, critics, beneficiaries -- only complicates the matter.

Clearly, the SSI program should be reformed so that payments to individual families reflect the number of family members receiving benefits. The better-known Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) has such provisions. Clearly, there should be more uniform means-testing and greater oversight required by Congress on how benefits are being used. And yet policing the welfare system costs money. The government has to be prepared to throw enough resources into this effort so taxpayers come out ahead in the end.

Many disadvantaged Americans truly need the help provided by SSI and related programs. Many truly use it in the way intended. But unless this program is dramatically re-tailored, the clamor for welfare reform could lead to Draconian actions in which the innocent -- especially children -- are punished for the actions of unscrupulous adults and a bungling government.

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