Jumping off the gravy train

Public assistance is supposed to be just that -- temporary help for people who find themselves down on their luck. Social services programs aren't supposed to be a permanent income source for those who would rather not work for their supper.

Unfortunately, as with any government program, there are abuses of the system, which include people who are simply looking for a free ride. It damages the credibility and viability of the services, which could make it tougher for folks who really need the help to get the assistance they need. Hopefully, the free ride is coming to an end in Montgomery County.

In July, the county kicked off a welfare to work program in the city of Amsterdam. Its purpose is to put able-bodied welfare recipients to work, with the goal of helping them gain valuable skills and a work ethic attractive to potential employers, enabling them to get off the welfare rolls and back into the work force. With the county's unemployment rate coming in at around 10 percent -- which is one of the highest in New York state -- that means there are about 2,500 people out of work. That number doesn't include part-time workers or people who aren't looking for work.

Not only does the program help welfare recipients gain employment skills, it also helps provide a public service, especially for people who have been paying into the system but have seen little in return. Most of the available jobs are seasonal labor, such as clearing brush, raking leaves and janitorial services on public property, but officials hope to include basic clerical work in the future. It's not glamorous work, but at least it forces people to give back to the public that's been paying their way for so long.

Since its inception, the program has expanded beyond the city into the villages of Hagaman, Fort Plain, St. Johnsville and Fonda. We hope more communities sign on.

It won't be easy making the service the success it can be, and local officials have already reported some bumps in the road. Along with being limited in the types of jobs that can be offered, officials are combating an entitlement mindset found in people who have been taking the county "for a ride," as DSS Commissioner Michael McMahon describes it, for years. It's not going to be easy convincing someone who's accustomed to feeding from the public trough that it's better to support themselves by working.

Of course, deciding not to participate has its consequences. Officials have reported that in some instances, people have voluntarily canceled their benefits because they didn't feel like working for those checks. It's too bad they decided to take that route, but at least the working public no longer has to pay their way.

But there have been successes. Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton said one man didn't show up for work for four straight days, but after reaching out to him, he eventually arrived bright and early and got to work. We'd love to see that kind of change in attitude continue.

The public should understand that it's going to take awhile to fully get the program running at full speed, and people should be patient as the county works out the kinks. If done right, this program could get more people off the gravy train and back into the work force. It could mean significant cost-savings for taxpayers who pay through the nose, or at the very least give them a return on their investment. Anything with this kind of potential deserves a chance.