“How can we make access to benefits easier?” was the theme of our weekly Incubator Meeting that brought together members of the community on Wednesday, February 22. Amherst Community Connections intern, Elizabeth, started off the conversation with a history of welfare reform over recent years.
Elizabeth began by telling us about the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, put into place in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. This act served as a way to make citizens “toughen up” in a sense, and put more personal responsibility on individuals. Additionally, this act gave block grants to each state and allowed the state would make their own welfare system under the federal guidelines. This in turn created inequality among the states, when some were allocated more funds than others. In order to enact more personal responsibility, states were forced to lessen their welfare caseload. Individuals and families who may have still needed assistance were often stripped of their benefits, leaving them worse off than before they had their low-wage job.
Elizabeth went on to discuss how the war on poverty is related to the war on drugs. Both play to the tune of dependency. The war on drugs indicates a dependency on substances while the war on poverty deals with a dependency on government services. With the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, it was a way to push people to become more self sufficient and less dependent on others.
There are many changes to our current system that could be amended to allow more and better access to government assistance for those who really need it. For example, focusing on getting those who need help into a rehab program, then later transitioning them into housing rather than denying them. Additionally, the government could lessen the budget for the prison system and put those funds toward education.
Another Amherst Community Connections intern, Kimya, spoke about the potential for creating a common application for public benefits. While money to create this common application was not included in the 2017 fiscal budget, it is certainly being looked into for 2018. This common application would be an attempt at bridging the gap between those who qualify for benefits but aren’t currently getting them.
Lastly, we discussed what is not working currently when trying to gain access to public benefits. Community members stated: lack of transportation, long wait times both on the phone and in person, the stigma around needing government assistance.
By: Lauren White