Can welfare and work co-exist in a post-Roosevelt world?

By Jayson Jacoby May 20, 2011 04:01 pm

I recently watched an excellent Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary about the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of several alphabet soup public relief agencies President Franklin Roosevelt created during the Depression.

This was a time, of course, when soup of any flavor was hard to come by except those recipes simmering in government kitchens.

The topic, despite the grainy black-and-white patina of the film, seemed more relevant than you’d expect of something going on 80 years ago.

In particular the show, a 2009 episode in OPB’s “Oregon Experience” series, got me to thinking about a current controversy over a state aid program that bears a passing resemblance to the CCC.

The program is called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). As its name implies, the program gives public money to families — 30,000 of them, roughly, a total of 52,000 adults and children.

Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to make the program more temporary than it is now, which isn’t very.

Families can receive TANF payments for as many as 60 months. That’s a lifetime cap — a family could, for instance, get money for 60 consecutive months, or, say, for 30 straight months in two separate stints.

A typical payment is around $525 per month.

Kitzhaber, who’s trying to pare $3 billion from Oregon’s budget for the two-year cycle that starts July 1, has suggested trimming the TANF limit from 60 months to 18 months.

The estimated savings from this pruning is $11.6 million.

From a budgetary standpoint, then, lowering the TANF ceiling, as the governor recommends, would have a trivial benefit for the state as it tries to level its ledger.

But the potential effect on those thousands of families, many of whom have little or no income save for TANF and other public assistance, is apt to be rather more than trivial.

So I think Kitzhaber’s plan is misguided.

Yet, after watching the CCC show, neither am I convinced that the status quo, as regards TANF, is ideal either.

The OPB program reminded me that the government, in its earnest desire to help its most vulnerable citizens, can do quite a lot more than just mail a monthly check.

The basic idea behind the CCC was to stock military-style camps with young, unemployed single men — of which there was a terrible abundance during the Depression — feed them three hearty meals per day, and set them to work on projects that benefit the public.

For this the government paid each man $30 per month — of which $25 was sent back to his family.

I was struck by the sense of pride these former CCC “boys” exuded when they were interviewed for the program, a pride still palpable in these now elderly men even after so many decades.

They were proud that, in exchange for a government “handout,” they roughened their own palms building roads and blazing trails and planting trees and dousing forest fires.

The connection between the CCC and TANF is, I’ll concede, a tenuous one.

The CCC was a well-conceived concept for young, unencumbered men. They had no children to look after, and they were physically capable of the labor required of them.

In the case of TANF, by contrast, all the clients have children. In many cases the recipient is a single mother.

Sending thousands of young moms and their babies to live in tents in the woods and dig in the dirt probably is not feasible.

(Although the babies, who are undiscerning in their choice of play, probably would enjoy the dirt.)

Still and all, I couldn’t suppress the notion, after I had turned off the TV and gone to bed, that FDR really was onto something in 1933.

The term in vogue since the Clinton administration is “welfare to work” — the idea that if government assistance comes with a deadline, then recipients will have a strong incentive to get a job.

Roosevelt’s idea, it seems to me, would be better described as “welfare AND work.”

I think this concept is still valid.

The challenge, of course — and it’s a daunting one — is how to apply that concept so that the cost to the government isn’t exorbitant.

Oregon certainly can’t afford to build a series of CCC-style camps around the state to house TANF clients.

And as I mentioned, finding meaningful and suitable work for them might be difficult as well.

Nonetheless, I would rather the governor and the Legislature at least make an effort to take up that challenge.

The strategy that Kitzhaber seems to favor — making budget cuts that could cause great harm to people, without easing the burden an iota on the taxpayers who support them, or contributing anything to the public good — seems to me the antithesis of the Roosevelt spirit.

You can still hike trails that the CCC boys hacked through the mountains, and sleep in log cabins they constructed.

Probably those boys, all weathered old men today, would gladly give testimony, as they did to OPB, about the satisfaction that comes from finishing a task that you’ve set yourself to.

But we had better not wait too much longer. Soon now the last of the boys will be gone, and we’ll have only the fruits of their labor to tell the tale.

.        .        .

I awakened at 2 a.m. Monday to what I, in my meteorological naivete, believed to be fog.

The frosty glow in the streetlight was, of course, snow.

It was falling fast at that hour, the flakes the size of half-dollars, only a lot more damp.

I ought not to have been surprised by this snow, even though it arrived barely more than a month short of the summer solstice.

Late spring blizzards have been rather commonplace around here in recent years.

On June 10, 2008, about three inches of snow fell in town — most of it landing on our aspen tree, which ended up losing a major limb to the ordeal and has never looked quite right since.

This amputation, which I performed with a bow saw some months later, was particularly painful to me because I had tried to repair the damage with a handful of galvanized deck screws, in the manner of an orthopedic surgeon fortifying a fractured tibia.

Then, on May 5 of last year, snow fell to a depth of about five inches.

The aspen emerged unscathed, perhaps because it was not yet fully leafed out, and so its limbs not as burdened as they were when it was caught unawares by that tricky June squall.

This week’s storm was not so potent, in my yard, anyway, as either the 2010 or 2008 episodes.

But it reminded me that, at least until after Independence Day, I shouldn’t assume, when I wake in the wee hours and see a curious light in the sky, that the culprit is anything but snow.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.