Goal to create independence

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Another shot at welfare reform should center on personal responsibility.

WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER has said often that public assistance programs should extend a hand-up, not distribute a hand-out. And he says the measure of success is not how many people are served by social welfare plans, but rather how many people are transitioned from such programs to productive self-sustaining jobs.

That's a good starting place for the Trump administration, which is signaling its intention to seek welfare reform next year.

No doubt, it will be a tough slog. The population receiving public aid of one kind or another is enormous.

In the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson declared his "War on Poverty," and since then governments have spent mountains of money trying to eradicate poverty and lift disadvantaged people toward the middle class. Yet there are more poor people than ever. Neither Johnson's program nor the "reforms" that have followed realistically can be termed anything but failures.

THERE ARE TWO WORDS that, arguably, sum up all that underpins the American Idea - personal responsibility.

America works when Americans work, and people shoulder personal responsibility for their own well-being and that of their families. As families build security for their households they contribute to prosperity for the community, the state and the country.

But public assistance does not make a contribution. It is a net drain on national resources.

Welfare takes resources away from productive people and redistributes it to unproductive people. Worse, it becomes an incentive for people to remain unproductive, a condition capable of stretching across generations. Households that exhibit a strong work ethic and value self-reliance tend to produce offspring with the same attributes. Conversely, households that lack role models demonstrating such values tend to produce offspring susceptible to endless dependency.

It's a rule of economics: What you incentivize, you get more of.

LET'S BE CLEAR. We are not calling for the rapid elimination of public assistance programs. Nor are we unaware that a certain percentage of the population - because of physical or mental disability - is unable to sustain themselves. A society's decency can be measured by how it treats its most unfortunate souls. It is moral and honorable to provide public maintenance for those who cannot do for themselves.

On the other hand, society is reduced to being a patsy when welfare becomes a way of life for any able-bodied individual. Taxpayers have spent trillions of dollars providing universal public education opportunities. Job training programs abound. It's a fact that companies increasingly are having trouble finding enough qualified people to fill payrolls.

It's also a fact that too many people make too many mistakes early in life and cause themselves to be desperately handicapped in a competitive world. The biggest challenge for any reform effort is finding ways to break that cycle.

The formula for success, for people of sound mind and body, is not a secret. Take full advantage of taxpayer-provided public school opportunities and get a good education. Stay out of trouble. Get a job. Postpone having children until you are capable of being an adult and providing for your own needs. And be smart (and choosy) about getting married before having children - a productive and reliable partner is the best hedge against poverty.

THUS, REFORMING WELFARE should take the shape of incentivizing behavior that leads to personal responsibility. There's a flip side to that equation. Disincentivize behavior that undermines personal responsibility.

This next phrase may raise hackles - so be it: Society has no responsibility to support people's bad behavior and dumb mistakes.

We hope the Trump administration takes a cue from Walker's oft-repeated words - provide a hand-up, not a hand-out, and measure success based on how many people move from relying on welfare to relying on themselves.

That will require tough decisions and political fortitude, applied toward the able-bodied population, to firmly establish that public assistance is a limited and temporary benefit provided by a generous nation for the sole purpose of helping people who want to dramatically change their trajectory in life. Americans pull the wagon; they don't ride in it for free.

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