Indiana is one of a growing number of states trying to get a handle on welfare expenditures by ending what is called abuse of taxpayers' money – forbidding benefits from being used on such things as booze, cigarettes, lottery tickets, casino gambling, tattoos and strippers. How can anybody object to that? Welfare is supposed to provide a basic level of necessities for those down on their luck. They aren't meant to provide luxuries, and taxpayers certainly shouldn't be subsidizing bad habits and vice.
The crackdowns are coming at a most opportune time, considering that welfare rolls might be about to go up, thanks to action by the Obama administration. The main feature of welfare reform enacted under President Clinton was a work requirement for the able-bodied getting benefits. The administration has just announced it will allow states to seek a waiver of the requirement under certain circumstances. Critics say reform is being gutted. Supporters say states are merely being given more flexibility.
Whatever it does or doesn't do in concrete terms, the waiver announcement means a great deal in symbolic terms. It matters what signal is sent to recipients and potential recipients of benefits.
Clinton's reform legislation sent a signal that the days of strings-free entitlement were over. The rules on how the money is spent now being enacted by the states send a signal that the government is still paying attention once the money leaves its hands.
Obama's tinkering with the waivers – even if the intent is not to weaken the work requirement – sends a signal that reform is not set in stone and perhaps the government isn't as serious about holding down welfare as it used to be. Such an interpretation of this administration's actions is perfectly understandable given some of its other actions. These are the people actually trying to get more people to use food stamps, despite the fact that $189 billion of the proposed $284 billion “farm” bill now before Congress is for food stamps. Anybody really think hunger in America is that bad?
There are right ways and wrong ways to reform welfare. Indiana stumbled into a really bad one with its deal with IBM to administer the program. What was sought was greater efficiency through technology. What happened was the introduction of impersonal and ineffective service that let people fall through the cracks. The state lost millions of dollars and a lot of prestige.
But now the state is on the right track and sending the right signals. It's painfully obvious Washington isn't going to be careful with the spending of our money. That means Indiana has no choice but to be more vigilant.