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Congressman Robert Pittenger HeadshotToday, more than 45 million Americans live in poverty. That’s about 1 in every 7 Americans. Unfortunately, our current welfare system traps many of these individuals in an inescapable poverty loop that disincentivizes those in poverty from seeking a better and independent life.

The framework of our current welfare system is based on President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” His stated mission was to “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

While this was an admirable goal, and should remain the goal of our safety net programs, our current framework focuses far too much on the symptoms of poverty, and far too little on curing and preventing poverty.

In fact, our current safety net programs often encourage dependency. For example, a study conducted by Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Public Welfare, showed that a single mother could actually end up better off with a job that pays $29,000 and receiving welfare payments than she would if she had a job that paid $69,000 with no welfare benefits.

Any good physician wants to cure a disease rather than just treat the symptoms. Any good gardener tries to uproot a weed rather than cut it at its base. Similarly, we should strive to eliminate the root of poverty and enact policies that truly help people escape its grips.

This past week, the Republican Study Committee, the conservative think tank of the House of Representatives, for which I serve on the Steering Committee, released our plan to address the root of poverty that keeps people entrapped. In our plan we offered solutions to empower individuals to seek a better life.

First, we need policies that reflect the importance of families in civil society. Single parent households are two to four times more likely to live in poverty than married couple families. And today, children are more likely than ever to be born out of wedlock. In 1965, only 7.7% of children were born outside of marriage. Today, over 40% of children are born out of wedlock.

Unfortunately, our current welfare system often punishes those who are married. If a low income individual receiving government assistance marries an employed person, their welfare benefits could be reduced or eliminated by an amount larger than the income of the employed spouse.

Policies like these discourage people from making lifetime commitments to the single best anti-poverty measure: marriage and a stable family structure.

Second, we need to restore and implement compassionate reforms designed to encourage those on welfare to pursue employment or participate in community service. In 2012, President Obama gutted bipartisan “welfare to work” reforms, originally enacted under President Clinton.

The evidence clearly indicates that President Obama took the wrong approach.  In Maine, for example, reforms requiring able-bodied food stamp recipients to take a job, participate in job training, or perform 6 hours of community service per week resulted in the caseload of able-bodied adults applying for food stamps plummeting by 80%. Similarly in Kansas, work promotion reforms reduced the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps by 75%.

All federal benefit programs should be reformed to include work promotion requirements to help people move away from dependency and toward self-sufficiency. In other words, government should offer a hand up, not just a hand out.

Additional potential reforms include reforming the earned income tax credit to enable hard working Americans enjoy the benefits on a monthly basis, rather than once at the end of the year; unleashing private sector market forces in federal housing to make it more competitive; and pilot projects to streamline duplicative assistance programs.

As House Republicans continue to develop a bold, pro-growth agenda, strengthening America’s social safety net to better help those truly in need remains a priority. With these reforms outlined above, we can not only empower our neighbors to escape poverty, but also keep them from falling back into poverty.

Congressman Robert Pittenger (NC-09) is Chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Vice Chairman of the Financial Services Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, and serves on the House Financial Services Committee, with a special focus on supporting small businesses, community banks, and credit unions.

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