I’ve Fallen, and I Can’t Get Up

Many of you may recognize the the title of this post from a television commercial from the late ’80′s by an outfit named LifeCall. While it depicted a serious situation, an elderly woman in desperate need of assistance, the acting was so bad that it was seen as humorous by almost everyone, and became the punch line of more jokes than any of us could count. But in recent years, it has become less of a joke, and more of an attitude for too many Americans.

Like Mrs. Fletcher, the woman in the commercial, many of us feel that we are helpless, our situation is beyond our control, and we need to have one of those magic buttons that will alert a voice on the other end to tell us that help is on the way. “I’ve lost my job, and I can’t find another one.” “My rent is due, and the landlord is pounding on my door.” “My kids are hungry, and I blew all the grocery money on lottery tickets.” And, of course, the reassuring words coming from the mystical pendant will be from the voice of government. And you know, believe it or not, I’m fine with that. Helping Americans in need is a legitimate function of our government. However, …

Simple Fact of Life #1: The government can’t, and shouldn’t try, to take care of every problem for every citizen.

It appears that, in more cases than there should be, people aren’t interested in having someone help them get back on their feet. It’s like they expect to be catered to right there on the bathroom floor, where they landed on their backs, next to Mrs. Fletcher, after slipping in the shower. Lost your job? How about endless unemployment benefits? Can’t afford your house payment? We can force the bank to refinance your loan, even if they have to take a loss. Frittered away your grocery money? I’m sure we can increase your food stamps. Too many folks claim to want a leg up, but they always seem to ask for it with their hand out. They seem to have convinced themselves that they’ve fallen, and they can’t get up.

I can’t say it any better than my favorite of our nation’s founders, and, in my opinion, one of the greatest minds this contenent has ever produced:

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I don’t like to see Americans living in poverty. I’m not completely heartless, and after all …

Simple Fact of Life #2: Being poor isn’t pleasant. And it shouldn’t be.

As Ben observed, when we attempt to take care of the poor without requiring personal responsibility, the end result will be that we have increased their poverty, and therefore their misery. I know this may sound harsh, but if we regard poverty as a cancer in our society, then we need to treat it like cancer. Cancer treatment usually involves surgery. Surgery is no fun. Surgery is painful. Surgery requires a long period of uncomfortable recovery. But as bad as having an operation is, not having it will be much worse. It’s not that I want people to have the opportunity to suffer, it’s that I want them to have the opportunity to thrive. But that takes a determined desire to be successful.

Okay, so now I sound like one of those greedy rich folks who just want to take stuff from the poor so we can have it all for ourselves.  You know, I really wish that were the case. But alas, I’m not a member of the “evil 1%.” Or the 5%. Or the 10%. Well, at least I’m maintaining my status in the 53%, so, in the immortal words of Joe Walsh, “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.” But it’s not about me or my economic situation. It is about …

Simple Fact of Life #3: Declining to take something from someone who has rightfully earned it is not giving him anything.

and …

Simple Fact of Life #4: Declining to give something to someone who has not rightfully earned it is not taking anything away from him.

 Jesus said “Love thy neighbor.” I’m not a religious person, but I certainly think the man from Nazareth got that one right. But I also think that “tough love” is often the best love. We can help Mrs. Fletcher to her feet, but if we carry her on our backs for too long, she won’t recover her strength, and eventually our legs will buckle under the excess weight. Then we’ll all be pushing our LifeCall buttons, but there won’t be anyone left to send help.

Well, I’m getting tired of just complaining about stuff, so how ’bout I toss a few ideas for solutions out there for your consideration? I may even have some good news for you Big Government fans, since my ideas would require government programs, and bureaucrats to administer them. However, I do believe that the FBIR (Federal Bureau of Idiotic Regulations) currently has more than adequate staffing to handle anything that I could come up with. And I, not being a religious person, think that a little “social Darwinism,” survival of the fittest, will strengthen our nation as a whole. My ideas are intended to, by incentive and/or coercion, as Franklin said, lead or drive people out of poverty.

Unemployment benefits

It’s rough to lose one’s job and face the uncertain times ahead. I’ve been there, as have most of us at some point. Fortunately, the government administers programs that were designed to give us some security while we were struggling to get back on our feet. But these programs should be safety nets. Just something to break our fall, a little painful to land in, very uncomfortable to lay in for any length of time, and something we would want to climb out of as quickly as humanly possible. Unfortunately, some “compassionate” types seem to have outfitted the net with an overstuffed mattress, some really fluffy pillows, and a very soft and warm blanket. Not to mention a fully stocked refrigerator and a big-screen TV. Too many people seem to look at how many weeks of unemployment checks they have left, and view any extension of benefits as an extension of the time they have left before they need to start looking for a job.

So how about this: Full unemployment benefits (based on a percentage of previous income) should be paid for a very short time, say three months. After that, payments will gradually decrease, say by 10% per month. If you don’t find work soon, things will become very uncomfortable very quickly. If you can’t work it out in time, then you go on the dole at a bare (and I do mean bare) sustenance level. More on that later.

But here’s the kicker: you can continue to receive most or all of the money that you would be entitled to, if you find and take a lower paying job. You get your unemployment check (on the decreasing scale) up to the point where your pay + benefits equals the previous income on which the benefits were based. This way, it will never be less financially advantageous to work than not to work.

Housing

Every American should have a safe, sanitary place in which to live. I’ve been to countries where most of the population exists in conditions that no American would, or should, find tolerable. But a residence that has “all the comforts of home” is something that needs to be earned to be appreciated. If your government housing is too comfortable, you might just be satisfied with something less than you could have. So …

All housing assistance should be “in kind.” That is, all rent subsidies will be paid directly to the landlord. No cash for the tenant. Government assisted housing should be spartan. It should seem cramped, simply furnished, and drab. Depending on the percentage of the rent that is subsidized, the amount of luxury items should be limited. For instance, if the government is paying 100% of the rent, no more than one (rather small) TV should be allowed in the residence. Housing units must be subject to frequent inspections to ensure that the rules are being followed. We need to know how our money is being spent.

Now I don’t really want people to live like that. I want them to do better — for themselves.

Nutrition assistance (Food Stamps)

No American should be allowed to starve. But, you know, a little hunger is a great motivator. If the difference between a good meal and yet another bowl of oatmeal is taking that job that you used to think was below you, you’ll do the right thing. So, we need to completely rework the way in which we provide nutrition assistance. Did you know that KFC accepts food stamps? What’s up with that? I like fast food as much (probably more) as anybody, but I pay for it myself, with money that I earned.

So, the program, as it exists, needs to go away. It should be replaced with an in-kind system. Rather than give people a cash equivalent that they can use to buy whatever foodstuffs they like, give them vouchers for specific food items. These vouchers could only be redeemed at certified stores that have contracts with the USDA (or whatever agency administers the new program). Beneficiaries would shop online at home or at a kiosk somewhere, and could see what items are available. They would have choices, but choices of low-cost, nutritious foods. Fish sticks, yes; lobster, no. Ground round, yes; filet mignon, no. Anjou pears, yes; Asian pears, no. Vouchers would be for one week’s supply of food, and would have to be redeemed in that time frame. And you could only get a certain amount of various catagories of food. You couldn’t get only meat or only bread. You would be forced to get a balanced diet. I realize that there would still be some fraud, as some people would want to sell their grapes to buy wine, but at least let’s not make it too easy for them.

And if you like Asian pears, you can have all you want when you’ve worked yourself off of the program. Or you can go to KFC.

Just a few suggestions. You’re smarter than I am. Come up with some better ones.

It was a pleasure to help you back to your feet, Mrs. Fletcher. Time to start walking on your own.