- - Sunday, April 22, 2018

Thanks to tax reform, deregulation and America’s can-do spirit, our economy is strong. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 2000, wages are rising, and businesses are bringing jobs back to the United States. Despite these tremendous economic gains, we have yet to unlock America’s full potential.

While America is now experiencing record low unemployment, our country still struggles from nearly record-high welfare enrollment.

Too many Americans remain on the sidelines of our economy. Today, a record 28 million able-bodied adults receive Medicaid, a 400 percent increase since 2000. More than 43 percent of all households receiving federal housing assistance are headed by an able-bodied adult. And in 2016, more than 16 million able-bodied adults received food stamps.

Our social safety net exists to protect low-income families from poverty and hardship, and to help people get back on their feet. Despite all the good intentions, our nation’s welfare system continues to encourage a culture of dependency rather than self-sufficiency.

As a child growing up with a single mother in Detroit, I witnessed the corrosive effect of welfare dependency on my extended family and many of our neighbors. Luckily for me, my mother understood that the power of education could free us from this dependency. Working multiple jobs, she refused to be bound by government programs that locked us into our lot in life.

Although my mother grew up in poverty and attained very little formal education, she believed that any path to success is built upon the books she encouraged me and my brother to read and the work ethic she instilled in me.

She was blessed with enormous faith, believing it would carry our family through all adversity, once telling an interviewer, “God is greater than any human being, and we have to rely on God to supply all our needs even though we don’t see how we’re going to get them.”

Too many of our neighbors are caught in a welfare system that perpetuates a cycle of poverty and breaks the American spirit of work, free enterprise and family. I often wonder what some of my childhood friends could have achieved if our welfare system promoted these fundamental keys to escaping poverty. What new inventions, policy ideas, medical advances, and discoveries never happen because too many languish in poverty?

It’s been more than 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, and 20 years since the last meaningful effort to reform our welfare system. But it has not proven to be enough.

To unlock America’s full potential, we need a welfare system of opportunity for the 21st century. The executive order signed by President Trump on Tuesday is a big step in the right direction.

Our welfare system should be a pathway to self-sufficiency by focusing on work and stable families, giving hope to their dreams and a foundation for their success. We need a dynamic and innovative welfare system for today’s dynamic economy.

Furthermore, we need a welfare system that is data-driven and measures outcomes, not just participation. If we cannot measure the true impact of our programs on their participants, we will only perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

This year I have instructed my staff to begin measuring the number of successful exits across our rental assistance programs, something HUD has historically never done. We need to target our resources to programs that achieve real change for those we set out to help.

Every American wants the dignity of providing for themselves and their families. Millions of people strive every day to escape poverty. It’s time we reform our welfare system to support them and unlock the untapped human potential in our forgotten inner cities and small towns. If we don’t, we could be missing out on the next award-winning brain surgeon. Together, we can unlock America’s full potential.

• Ben Carson is secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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