Backgrounder: The Value of Well-Functioning Households

January 17, 2018

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

In a pre-digital age, a municipal department of public assistance was swamped with paper files generated by open welfare cases. In the summer of 1968, graduate students, including this writer, were hired to summarize files, documenting home visitations, onto standardized forms. Each analyst was expected to evaluate each case on its capability in: 1) providing personal income; 2) maintaining a household; and 3) managing or seeking appropriate care for medical needs.

The overriding assumption, verified in the files, was that most households functioned on a high level but nevertheless required financial assistance due to circumstances beyond their control. In some reports, social workers documented adults or children residing in disordered households lacking adequate clothing, utilities, nutrition, bill-paying and safety. Infirmities, head of household incompetence or sheer neglect necessitated extended social services. Most adult recipients, in return for assistance, appeared willing to demonstrate a functioning household and care for dependents.

One unique feature of the law in the particular state of my example was surprising, i.e., parents were held financially responsible for their children, regardless of age, and adult children for their parents. Siblings, grandparents and in-laws were not responsible. Therefore, the department, prior to approval, would often track down the mother, father and any adult children of an applicant to determine if they had any independent sources of income sufficient, on a sliding scale, to substitute for government assistance. Admittedly, increasing caseloads and administrative costs reduced the frequency of applying this law.

Graduate students, reading these reports, were both embarrassed by the level of official intrusiveness and inspired by the efforts of most clients and caseworkers to improve living conditions. Fortunately, welfare reform in the 1990s reduced long-term financial dependency by limiting the number of years for eligibility and introducing the Earned Income Tax Credit. These measures recognized that social pathologies are not necessarily associated with financial distress or vice versa.

Today, in Indiana, we are dealing with increasing numbers of homeless individuals and children in need of care. Abandonment, addiction to drugs and alcohol, mental illness and the costs of providing custodial care and rehabilitation burden the state budget and officials attempting to deal with these issues. An additional danger is that caseworkers are increasingly expected to assume professional liability for the inevitable risks associated with making judgments affecting individual adults and children.

Why is it that the value of maintaining a household and nurturing its members receives little priority?  Has the role of the state expanded to the extent that even those receiving financial support expect to receive services traditionally self-provided?  When parents paying tuition or medical bills are denied information, do we even dare to suggest that close family simply be notified if adult children or dependent parents are in need?

Not every person, homeless or otherwise, is capable of maintaining a household. It would seem, however, that anyone receiving government support or disability payments could be expected to contribute to commercial or nonprofit providers of food and shelter. The homeless, guaranteed the full rights of any resident, could, nevertheless, be required to assume those responsibilities for which they remain capable.

At some point, any individual or family may require financial assistance, government-provided or otherwise. It is reasonable to assume that these funds will be used to provide dependents with food, clothing, shelter and a safe environment. This is never easy, even for those with a steady source of income.

Nevertheless, maintaining a household or making personal decisions for one’s own care remains a great source of pride and satisfaction. If there is a reasonable chance of success, those confronting personal demons should be given the opportunity to exercise this responsibility.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell.


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