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Can't we just force people on welfare to work?

Phil Clark is a hard-working 30-year-old who put himself through Eastern Michigan University, and now manages Ray’s Red Hots, a hot dog restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor that also operates mobile food carts throughout the state.

Clark’s business is doing fine, but he has a problem, which, whether he realizes it or not, is shared by restaurants all over the state, especially in Ann Arbor. He can’t find enough workers to hire for jobs, which start at barely more than minimum wage, and max out at $11 an hour, which, if full-time, would be less than $23,000 a year.

Clark thinks he knows why. He believes that the country is full of lazy people on welfare who have no real incentive to work. So he wrote a letter to all his elected representatives, which he shared with me. “I’d be willing to wager that many of these no-show “applicants” are welfare recipients who are required to prove that they are ‘looking for work,’” he said.

Clark wants us to forget about kicking out illegal immigrants, and “focus on getting our own citizens off their couches to take the jobs that are already there.”

He suggests we do that by requiring able-bodied unemployment/welfare recipients to work for the community at minimum wage, doing things like “pedal exercise bikes to generate electricity for the grid.” He’d also force any applicant on welfare to report their status to a potential employer, who could report them if they were offered a job and didn’t take it.

If that happens, he thinks their benefits should be cut off.

Clark, who told me he was a Libertarian, wanted to know my thoughts. He was polite and respectful and seemed to instinctively know I might disagree.

Well, I could have said I thought creating a class of stigmatized serfs forced to do anything for minimum wage was a bad idea. But instead, I told him something that I knew he’d find even more shocking: There aren’t any cash welfare payments to able-bodied adults without children in Michigan anymore. In fact, Governor John Engler led the state to terminate what were called “general assistance” welfare payments in 1991, when Clark was four years old.

So why aren’t folks queueing up to apply at Ray’s Red Hots? For one thing, Ann Arbor isn’t a place many low-wage workers can afford to live on what these jobs pay.

Working there might make sense for someone from Ypsilanti, but transportation is often a problem, and a proposal for area-wide mass transit was defeated last November.

If they have a car, parking anywhere on football weekends might cost more than a low-wage worker can make all day. That doesn’t mean there might not be answers.

A researcher with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative admitted this was an interesting and complex issue. Perhaps making such restaurants better places to work for single mothers would help, or taking a chance on workers who have been in prison.

The solution, he said, might even be as simple as the one capitalists always have been forced to resort to when they can’t find enough workers: Pay them more.

Whatever the answer, welfare isn’t the problem. But it does seem to be a myth that, unlike welfare itself, hasn’t gone away.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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