Poverty Expert: To Boost Labor Force Participation Rate, Public Assistance Programs Should Promote Work

By Susan Jones | January 19, 2016 | 10:46am EST
"Our welfare programs are not encouraging and promoting work as strongly as they should," says Robert Doar, a poverty expert with the American Enterprise Institute. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - President Obama frequently points to the nation's 5 percent unemployment rate as a sign of economic strength, but he doesn't mention the labor force participation rate, which is hovering at lows not seen since the late 1970s.

"And the extent to which people are not working is a very significant drag on growth in the American economy," Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute told CSPAN's "National Journal" on Tuesday.

As CNSNews.com has reported, the labor force participation rate has steadily dropped since its record high of 67.3 percent in early 2000. In December 2015, only 62.6 percent of the civilian, non-institutional population over the age of 16 participated in the labor force by either having a job or actively seeking one. Not since 1978 has the labor force participation rate been that low.

According to Doar, "If we had the same labor force participation that we had prior to (Obama's) presidency, we'd have 8 million more people working" right now.

"My view is, is that over the last eight years, and going back into the Bush administration a little bit as well, there was more of a focus on getting people signed up (for public assistance) and not enough on employment. And I think that's a problem. Not because I want to hurt or harm people, but because I think people are better off when they're working."

Doar, who described himself as a poverty expert, said his main policy recommendation is for public assistance programs to focus more on job training, job search and job placement -- "helping people get into work."

"That's the number one thing that I think is important."

Doar said people who get on public assistance and then go long periods without any contact from a case worker -- "that's not helping the person we're trying to help or our general economy."

Doar also noted that the federal disability program has grown "quite dramatically" in recent years, especially among men over the age of 45.

"And the problem with the disability program is, once you're on, you're always on, and you're not working. And there is really no effort made to re-engage people or re-assess people.

"Now people who are disabled, I want to help them and I want to support them. But there are levels of disability, and there are lots of people who are disabled who also say, I can work and I want to work. So the extent to which the federal disability program I think has played a significant role in this, has taken people out of the labor force who might otherwise like to be in it or could be in it, and is making no effort to bring them back.

"It's a very serious problem. It's also a very difficult program, because politically it's not an easy thing to change. Lots of interest groups, lots of anger, lots of turmoil about that.

"But it is a significant contributor to this problem and it's something we need to tackle as a country."

Doar said there are various reasons for the nation's relatively low labor force participation rate. He mentioned the growing number of retirees.

"But among the working-age population, it's dropping there too," he said. "And some of it might be due to education -- people are staying more in school. But I believe some of it has to do with the extent to which our welfare programs are not encouraging and promoting work as strongly as they should," Doar said.

"When you apply for public assistance there may not be an automatic referral to an employment program, so the public assistance program isn't saying to people directly, we need to get work, you'd be better off if you were in work.

He noted that neither the food stamp program nor Medicaid includes a requirement to work.

Doar said another factor is the difference between how much money people get from public assistance programs and how much they earn by working. If the gap is narrow, it might lead people to say, 'You know what, I'm fine at home until I can find that perfect job.' That's okay -- sometimes," Doar said. "But oftentimes, I think it's a problem, because the extent to which people are in work and working, they're generally better off."

Doar formerly served as commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, where he worked with welfare, food stamp, and Medicaid recipients. Before that, he was commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance.

"I believe in forms of public assistance that can supplement low wages and make them go further; help people stay in work; make work pay," Doar said. "But I don't believe in public assistance programs that replace work and make people feel as if they don't have to work or they aren't working, because they're more likely to be poor; their families are more likely to be less well off; and their skills begin to degrade.

"When you stay out of the work force, I think things go in a bad direction for families and for communities."

Doar said he has a problem with "transactional arrangements," where people get public benefits based on their income -- "and then, you know, you're on your own until you come back in for certification. That, I think, is a problem. I would rather have programs that said to people, we're going to help you get assistance, but I'm also going to help you get a job."

He said state and local governments and non-profit agencies might do a better job of engaging with public assistance recipients than the federal government does.

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