- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2012

America is set to sweep a number of events at the Olympic Games, which open Friday. The hard work and determination of these athletes will pay off in a stack of gold medals, but the country is on track to shatter a different kind of record by year’s end: Poverty will reach an all-time high.

Last year, about 46.2 million Americans fit the official definition of being poor. This 15.1 percent rate tied 2011 with 1993 as the worst year since the census started tracking the figure in 1959. This year, it’s on course to hit a record 15.9 percent, thanks to persistent joblessness and anemic economic growth. The latest statistics show the elderly have the lowest poverty rate, at 9 percent, and children have the highest, at 22 percent. Households headed by single moms fare the worst.

The government’s response has been to boost subsidies. Between 2008 and 2010, the food stamp program’s expenditures have nearly doubled from $39.3 billion to $75.3 billion. All together, about 70 percent of the federal budget goes to dependence programs, including health care and welfare, housing subsidies and retirement.

The Obama administration has revealed its desire for even more dependence with the recent move to waive work requirements for welfare. This change cuts out the heart of the historic 1996 welfare reform bill, which was built on the premise that the surest way out of poverty is a job, not more government assistance.

Thanks to the 1996 law, the number of households on welfare dropped 56 percent, according to the Heritage Foundation. The rate of poverty declined as well, from the 1993 peak of 15.1 percent to 11.2 percent in 2000. In fact, consumption for the poorest 20 percent grew steadily between 1980 and 2009 — until the Great Recession — according to a study by Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame.

Weakening or waiving the work requirements for people to receive welfare payments will do nothing to address the poverty problem. The spike in long-term unemployment and ever-increasing length of average unemployment already threaten to create a permanent underclass.

Landing a job is the surest way out of this poverty trap. If we want new employment opportunities to flourish for the jobless, the regulatory environment must change to encourage investment and job creation by the private sector. Those on government assistance also must work to either maintain their skills or learn new skills to enable them to be employable. Freeing them from work responsibilities ensures that those skills won’t be developed, and they’ll stay dependent.

The administration has its priorities backward. Undoing welfare reform and demonizing job creators is the surest way to bring poverty levels to greater heights. The best way forward is to provide an environment that is conducive to job creation.

Nita Ghei is a contributing Opinion writer for The Washington Times.

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