Showing posts with label government assistance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label government assistance. Show all posts

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The fundamentals of fundamentals

Sorry about the unplanned hiatus this week. Lots of exciting things (and I don't mean that in a good way) are going down at work as we gear up for our next round of layoffs. The big one for my grade is already done and dusted so I don't think I'm particularly at risk, especially since my extended group already provided more than 25% of the casualties to date. My emergency fund, now also known as my F.U. fund, is officially up to 2.5 years of living expenses in cash ($60,000) without factoring in unemployment or severance, so even without the other semi-reassuring factors, I'm not worried about getting axed anymore.

Oh, and I have a stomach bug, too. Marvelous.

What I've been meaning to post this week is a look over at Grace's blog, specifically about her current family situation. You can read Grace's blog yourself for the full background, but it made me think about life skills and where those come from.

I'm sure there's a proper psychological definition of life skills out there somewhere, but I think of life skills as comprising the basic, fundamental things people need to know to be able to fully function as an independent adult. To me, these things include (but aren't necessarily limited to):

--Reading and writing
--Budgeting
--Cooking and basic nutrition
--Cleaning
--Basic repairs
--Meeting deadlines
--Time management
--Decision making
--Planning
--Establishing a daily routine

(For parents, there's obviously a whole other world of life skills to learn. I don't know anything about parenting, so I'm just focusing on adult independence.)

In an ideal world, we'd learn all this stuff from our parents. In the real world, forget it. I learned a lot of it from my folks and some from school, but I also figured some of it out myself. One example: When I first went out into the working world, I had to teach myself how to make up a budget. There was no opportunity to learn this at home, since my parents didn't talk about their incomes or their household budget around the kids. I really wish they had: I picked up my views on spending by observing them and I know they were good at planning for their future. I really would have liked to sit down with them once a month to learn hands-on how they figured out what money went where.

Similarly, I can only imagine how aghast my college roommate was the day I moved into a share house and called her up shortly before dinnertime to find out what one does with chicken. I love cooking today: I'm a pretty darn good cook (and modest, too!), but getting there was something of an awkward journey. I'm just glad I never burned anything down.

I wouldn't say that all of my life skills are as good as they could be. I've learned a bit about fixing things over time, but only the absolutely most basic. My ways of compensating for that are to either bribe talented friends to teach me, or make sure I have enough money to pay someone else to do the work. I've got the other basics covered well, though, so I can get by even though I'm weak in this area.

So. . . what happens when someone gets to adulthood and for whatever reason isn't equipped with enough of the basic skillset to function independently? I posted my thoughts recently that teaching life skills should be a mandatory requirement in safety net programs, because I think that's potentially a great way to foster independence. What other ideas do you have for helping people get life skills that they may have missed out on while growing up?

While you're at it, what core life skills are missing from the list? Of the core life skills, what are your greatest weaknesses and how do you compensate for them?

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

A chicken in every pot?

It sounds like the economic tide has turned in the US, and for all intents and purposes the recession has been pronounced dead. The job market hasn't come full circle yet, and it's not likely to do so for a while given that jobs are a lagging indicator of the current economic situation and short-term forecasts. That's why I wasn't enormously surprised to read in the New York Times today that one in every eight Americans relies on food stamps, with a significant and growing proportion of that population declaring no source of cash income whatsoever.

The article presents food stamps in a couple of different lights: From one perspective, food stamps are a lifesaver for people hit hard by the economy. From another, it's a shortcut to enabling people to develop long-term dependence on government assistance. As usual, my perspective lies somewhere in between.

For the record, I'm not a fan of relying on government assistance, but I do recognize that there are always going to be people in society who are not capable of functioning independently. I'm not addressing those people's situations here, okay? For everyone else, it's vital to have a short-term safety net for unexpected interruptions of income. Where I get annoyed is when people use the protection that government assistance provides to make bad decisions.

What do I mean by bad decisions? Here's one example from a blog: Someone who depends on subsidized housing and food stamps to keep a roof over her family's head decided that while her safety net wasn't ideal, it was enough to allow her and her husband to forge ahead and have another child, so she discontinued birth control and they are actively trying for a baby. Meanwhile, neither the blogger nor her her husband are working: she's hell-bent on being a stay at home mom, and her husband has a long history of not being able to hold a job for more than a couple of weeks before being dismissed. This couple's choice to have a second child while knowing full well that they can't support the family they already have is, in my opinion, a very bad decision from a forward planning and financial health perspective as well as a thoroughly unconscionable abuse of government assistance.

As annoyed as I am by circumstances like this one, I don't see that anyone benefits from this family being made homeless or left to starve, either. This is where I think non-cash assistance programs like food stamps are beneficial: Since food stamps can only be used for food, as long as there are adequate protections in place to prevent them from being sold or traded (New York uses debit cards containing photo ID), I think they have the power to effectively help people who are struggling with less risk of generating a mindset of ongoing dependence than cash assistance programs.

And yet, as the example I gave you above illustrates, there are people who will use non-cash government benefits as a justification for making inappropriate choices. This is where monitoring and counseling are key: I think any government assistance program should be designed to motivate people to want get off of assistance as soon as possible. To make this happen, I think government assistance should come with mandatory financial counseling/budgeting skills and job skills training, as well as regular checks to verify both incoming household income and how the household money is spent. It would be uncomfortable and no doubt intrusive, but I don't think receiving government assistance should ever be comfortable. More importantly, I think it's critical to help people develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to stand on their own two feet.

What do you think: Is this perspective too gentle? Too harsh? How closely does it reflect how government assistance is handled where you live?

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