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More on our tangled welfare net

Several readers have wanted to know more about the plight of the family whose story is the basis for a recent book—Andrea Campbell’s Trapped in America’s Safety Net (University of Chicago Press, 2014)—that I reviewed in WORLD Magazine’s May 16 issue. Here are a few more quotations from the book:

Page 30: “Recipients have to fight to establish eligibility and to get what they need. They can’t accept assistance from family members without violating eligibility criteria. And they must remain poor to remain in the programs.”

Page 63: “There’s not much incentive to earn more money, because social assistance recipients will lose most of that earning power as their benefits fall away.” One 27-year-old within the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program “would like to work when he’s physically able, but is only allowed to earn $85 per month without penalty. Beyond that, he faces an effective 50 percent marginal tax rate as his SSI diminishes.”

Page 64: For a single parent with two children in California, “every additional dollar earned yields only 45 cents, or even as little as 20 cents as taxes increase and benefits fall away— the highest marginal tax rates faced by anyone in our society.”

Author Campbell recognizes the problem: Individuals need enormous personal motivation to make the transition from social insurance to work, because the numbers themselves lead many on welfare to stay put. The regulations do offer an incentive to divorce. If Marcella and Dave Wagner divorced, “Dave could keep his half of the assets. And he and Logan [their child] would be free to live on as much income as Dave could make, to accept help from family. …”

Campbell reports, “The outpouring of support from the local community has been astounding. But the feeling of being hunted has been too.” When the local newspaper reports on a fundraiser for the Wagners (“a lovely, humane gesture”), a social worker points out that the lump sum gift may cost the Wagners their benefits. The welfare system gives those who want to help an incentive to do nothing.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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