It was illegal to be poor, unemployed and visible in Victorian England. (The visible poor have always been a problem. The poor one cannot see are easily ignored.) To address this situation, Parliament, through a series of “Poor Laws,” created the workhouse system.
Thus, the English state took over the responsibility of caring for the poor and the poor, in turn, were expected to work to repay the state for its generosity.
State Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, saw some of Alabama’s visible poor “just sitting on the porch” and decided that “if they’re on public assistance … they should be doing something.”
No, Taylor is not proposing that our state build workhouses where the poor can be put out of sight and labor for their sustenance like they did in Charles Dickens’ day. However, he is motivated by the same belief that if the poor are going to get help from the state, they should be required to work for it.
Despite sounding punitive, the plan is not without its merits. Hark back to the 1930s and you will find that many of the programs of the New Deal were designed to put people to work doing needed jobs and getting paid for it. Honest labor would replace the dole. That modern conservatives blame the New Deal for creating a culture of dependency is a striking irony in what Sen. Taylor proposes. Equally ironic is that putting people to work through government programs has been a hallmark of liberal economics for decades.
But irony aside, Taylor has introduced a bill that would require the able-bodied unemployed to do community-service labor for nonprofit organizations in order to receive government benefits.
So far the only objections are in the bill’s details, and we all know that is where the Devil lurks.
Taylor’s plan would require the Alabama Department of Labor to set up and administer the program, but that department has endured cutbacks from the state government. How, it is reasonable to ask, can it accomplish the task without additional funding?
Taylor says the cost will be offset by money saved on the benefits lost by the non-complying unemployed. Many are skeptical. There also is the possibility that there will not be enough nonprofits taking part to absorb all the workers who are told to work.
In short, this bill needs a thorough rethinking.
However, if the state can find a way to put people to work doing jobs that need to be done -- without turning the plan into punishment rather than service -- Sen. Taylor might have something that would make Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson proud.