Welfare reform – what is it? The progressive liberal portrays welfare reform as punishing folks by taking away their monetary help with food and housing. The conservative viewpoint is that nonworking folks who are unable to provide for themselves deserve help and those who are able-bodied should be encouraged to find employment and enter the workforce to become self-sustaining.

It is puzzling to understand why the idea of providing motivation to find a job and become a productive member of society is so distasteful to some. It has long been the American way, and certainly the Maine way, to earn a paycheck with a diligent work ethic and to provide for oneself and family. When I was transferred to Maine from Massachusetts to manage a business, I was absolutely amazed by the work ethic of its people. I was surrounded by people who showed up for work early, their honesty absolutely amazing, and very seldom missed a day of work. That seems to have changed.

What has brought about that change? Years of dependence on government welfare benefits has contributed greatly to reducing the desire to work when one can stay home (or somewhere) and have food and housing provided. This dependence on government has now become multi-generational, to where many folks have been raised in homes where such dependence is deemed normal and expected. It does not have to be so. There are untold success stories of those who have toiled at multiple jobs to rise above poverty and become part of the mainstream economy. Nationally, we have a secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, whose mom was one of those people. Locally I know of a successful businessman who quite a few years ago slept in his car while seeking to better himself working at an entry level job. Today he is a business owner who seems to be doing quite well.

Maine’s current unemployment rate is somewhere around 3.7 percent. That sounds great, but what does it mean? An unemployment rate of 3.7 percent relates to more than 25,000 folks who by definition (U3) are able-bodied and have recently looked for work. That is not the entire story. There is another unemployment number (U6) that is even more revealing and is around 8.2 percent. This number relates to 55,000 Maine folks who are able-bodied and not working. Many of these folks are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which are formal names for welfare.

Welfare reform is not about pushing people out on the streets without lodging, food or clothing. Welfare reform is about providing mandatory incentives for these same folks to get a job and start providing for themselves. Are there 55,000 jobs out there in the marketplace? Yes. Virtually any media interview with an employer will tell the story of a serious worker shortage. The next time you are at a convenience store, a grocery store, a home improvement store, Walmart, or virtually anywhere, observe the “Help Wanted” signs. What skills do you need to qualify? The only qualifications are to be able to stand up on two feet, come to work when expected, and be willing to learn. You may even be able to sit down at some jobs.

The perception is that these are low-level minimum-wage jobs and welfare benefits exceed the amount that one can earn. Therefore, why should one bother? There are two answers to this question. The first is that minimum-wage jobs are almost obsolete. McDonald's does not start folks at minimum wage. A local convenience store recently had a sign posted that the starting wage would be $11.75 per hour. There are many, many jobs available at considerably higher hourly rates than minimum wage.

The second answer is welfare reform. There needs to be some flexibility in these welfare programs so that they are not all or nothing. If someone gets a job, there should be provision for a reduction in benefits but leaving a portion of benefits so that the net to the individual is a gain in income. We must have incentives for folks to want to rise above their current place in life.

Why is now the perfect time for welfare reform? There are folks available to fill the jobs. There are plentiful jobs available. The wages at these jobs are rising due to worker shortages. Let’s get people to work.