A role for government

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." What a lousy quote. It excludes the possibility that you might need to do both or that there may not be any fish to catch at all.

I've been surprising a lot of liberal friends lately with my enthusiasm for free-trade, my lack of enthusiasm for localism, and tolerating political gaffs by right-wing leaders, etc. It might be time I repent by explaining how I fall on the "left" side of the aisle.

Poverty, like most things we deplore, is a seriously misunderstood societal malady. Its affects reach beyond the homes of those who suffer its grasp. Poverty is a common prerequisite for crime. Poverty spreads squalor in our streets. Poverty breeds more poverty by passing on poor circumstances to later innocent generations. While I feel it's important to bring people up out of poverty - it's more important (and more practical) to prevent people from being sucked into it. I work at a private food-bank out of compassion for the down-trodden, it is for the rest of us and society as a whole that I advocate a government role in minimizing poverty.

The apathetic argument

It goes something like this: the poor deserve their circumstances because of personal failures and deficiencies. In other words they're lazy drug addicts and alcoholics. I'd like to challenge this view. There are always going to be a few sloths and abusers of narcotics - this is a malady that transcends economic status. It's not necessarily forgivable, but given the conditions people suffer in poverty, I'm apt to forgive them more than a celebrity who lands in jail for using drugs or a trust-fund baby squandering their wealth on frivolous accessories and chihuahuas.

There's also ample data that this view of poor people is grossly skewed. The City of Portland recently conducted a survey of homeless people (Portland Press Herald) in an effort to secure federal funding for housing. Their findings were similar to my experience two summers ago travelling across the state surveying recipients of food pantries and soup kitchens. The study found that 50% of those on the street suffered from severe mental illness. 44% had chronic disabilities. How can we blame them for circumstances largely out of their control? I thought we already established eugenics was immoral? The study further found that only 16% of the homeless were chronic drug abusers.

Also in the Portland Press Herald was an Op-Ed by Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin, Ph.D, co-director of the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of New England’s School of Social Work. A year ago he conducted a study on 6000 recipients of TANF - which is the closest equivalent to most people's perception of "welfare."
"Our research discovered that more than 90 percent of TANF families have a woman as the head of the household. A typical family is a mother with two children, and many of these children are very young, as the median age of children in the program is 2 years of age. 
"The vast majority of these families, about 88 percent, do not receive regular support from the absent parent of the children, and nearly a quarter of parents report domestic violence and abuse. 
"These are working families. Ninety-seven percent report they have work experience. Unfortunately, most of the jobs pay low wages, averaging $8.46 per hour, and offer few benefits. 
"More than any other group, TANF helps children. More than 25,000 children depend on the program to have a place to live, to buy clothes and meet the other basic needs in their lives.
"Of the families surveyed, the median amount of time spent on TANF was 18 months. Of those families that received assistance for five years or more, almost 90 percent reported that their family includes a member with a disability."

Children made a markedly large percentage of people who received food from the pantries I surveyed two years ago. Good Shepherd Food-Bank released its results and concluded that 40% of those served were less than 18 years old. 40%!

Conservative commentator, Ben Stein insists that that “the people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities.” There are millions of people affected by poverty - many of whom work and are productive members of society - and it's intellectually lazy to make such a gross generalization about so many people. Never mind the fact that there are ample reasons that are out of an individual's control that determine their economic success. How about rising costs of living? Even Alan Greenspan recognizes that the state of the economy is a huge factor in determining unemployment.

The reality is we're all born with the capacity and desire to live productive lives (YouTube.) Many are held back by social barriers out of their control. In regards to "laziness" - consider the 78 million Americans who were unemployed in 2004. The Census Bureau did a study to reveal the reasons behind those who were unemployed. A whopping 76.7% of those between the ages of 20 and 64 are out of work either because there are no jobs, they're going to school, or suffering from a temporary illness/injury. Most of them were working at home supporting other people or have unfortunate chronic disabilities that prevent them from working. Hardly lazy.

Only 5.3% were not employed because they reported that they were "not interested in work." Even that mere 5.3% of the unemployed who make up only .006% of the entire US population cannot be automatically assumed to be lazy because there are numerous ways they may have contributed to society that do not constitute employment.

When Milton Friedman in an interview said "most of the money that is spent [on welfare] does not go to the people whom you would like to get it" - he wasn't referring to drug abusers or "welfare queens." Rather, his problem was with the bureaucracy and how much it cost to serve so few people.

I agree to a certain extent, but honestly, in the whole scheme of things welfare doesn't cost that much. According to the U.S. Government Printing Office which publishes a copy of the Federal budget, only 2.4% of the budget was used for Health and Human Services of which only a fraction goes towards welfare. 2.4% to serve roughly 10% of the population - not too shabby. Ironically, middle-class and especially wealthy Americans also benefit from "welfare" in the form of tax deductions, corporate and farm subsidies, capital gains tax limits, Social Security, Medicare, and a multitude of other tax benefits. Yet these types of assistance carry no stigma (except perhaps by libertarians) and are rarely considered "welfare."

The economic argument

There is ample evidence that suggests that if you give able people money for basic needs that they'll work less or not pursue careers at all. I'm not naive or surprised by these findings. The fact of the matter is, welfare doesn't primarily serve able people. Rather it serves people who are in poverty due to circumstances out of their control - many of which can't work even if they wanted to. 

I've already explained that a vast majority of those in need of assistance are children, mentally and physically disabled, and to a lesser extent battered women (or men), individuals with too many dependents and not enough support and those who can't get jobs because there are none. For most of these people, poverty will be a reality for their entire life. I've already said that to bring them out of poverty is a worthy goal, but pragmatically very difficult. The aim of providing assistance is to practice compassion as well as foster an environment that doesn't spread more poverty through crime, generational inheritance or by allowing children to starve reducing their success in school, ultimately sealing their fate later in life. It's less about the recipients and more about creating opportunity for other people who depend upon or live around those recipients. Meeting the basic needs of our poorest community members increases the quality of life for everyone else.

Evolving systems, better solutions

There will always be poverty. People will fall onto unfortunate circumstances forever - that's life. Even if we create a perfect economic system, there will still be conflict/war, natural disasters, scarcities, etc... But we can make the world a much better place. My proof? We already have. In what constitutes a spec of time in the history of our species we've created a society (in the West) where most people's quality of life is beyond imagining for our ancestors who huddled in shacks and caves. Most of us are warm in winter when not centuries ago most of us were cold. Most of us die from cancer and heart disease as opposed to starvation or the elements. 

In Michael's fun Economic Reality Checks he points out that "Only civilization can destroy [poverty], and then only under a certain constellation of circumstances." Well, in our complex globalized society, I think it's safe to say we have a fair constellation of circumstances now.

I'm optimistic things can be a lot better. The biggest roadblock I see is apathy. People don't arbitrarily dislike those in poverty, but rather they garner their apathy from misunderstandings about them. It is my hope that through posts like this people will realize that those in need of assistance are just like us and in most cases are children or suffer due to no fault of their own.

Having navigated assistance programs professionally and briefly as a recipient myself, I can confidently say that the bureaucracy that exists isn't to appease those of us who want a system of support for our most vulnerable neighbors. No, in fact most of the obstacles people face in the system were established to ensure "those who don't deserve help" don't get it, or that we ensure they use the help for reasons we judge to be worthy, like food and shelter instead of snow mobiles and video games. But again, we forget that a large reason for the assistance isn't just to help the recipient. Nor do people "who don't deserve it" constitute a notable portion of those who benefit from assistance.

For a better welfare system, I ironically look to the free-market capitalist, Miltion Friedman for inspiration. Welfare needs to be fixed - that's for certain - and one of the best ways to do it is to streamline assistance programs and not worry about accidentally subsidizing a scattering of deviants. Friedman wanted a smaller government and found that the simplest solution to help people meet basic needs was to just give them money through a reverse or "negative income tax." Better than consolidating assistance departments and agencies, he rolled assistance right into the IRS. His idea evolved into the Earned Income Credit which is one of the best forms of assistance we have. It's flawed in that it doesn't help people who can't work - but it's a step in the right direction. 

12 Intelligent Comment(s):

Abner said...

With such a long post, I could spend three hours responding. I won't, though, because I don't want to take the three hours and on top of that, I haven't finished discussions from months ago! But, this was a good read, Jer. Suffice it to say that a good portion of it was hard to stomach, for me. BUT, the I think we can find a lot of common ground in the last paragraph. Less beauracracy = less wasted money and more money where it is needed. Hey, if I have to pay for welfare, at the very LEAST I want it to go where it is most needed!

Jeremy Corbally-Hammond said...

My argument wasn't really directed towards Libertarians anyways. Though, I was at least hoping that the fact that welfare has self-serving advantages for those of us who are not on it would garner some (albeit small) support - but oh well.

You're welcome to offer a brief summary of your objection to welfare and I won't attempt to rebut it for the sake of sparing us both the time entailed. lol

Colby said...

Great post on this one, as your know jerm I have complained many times about those who take advantage of the system, the sad fact is that those people are always the most visible.

Through this post and many conversations we've had you have changed my view from almost elimination of the welfare state, to me realizing that one of the greatest achievements for our nation would be to ensure that no one goes hungry and we can provide that safety net for everyone in our society.

But as with Abner your last paragraph resonated with me the most, streamline the process, less red tape, and cut from programs that are redundant, and give to those who need assistance the most the care and support that they need. Now the real question is how do we do that.

Great post jermay, a discussion that I think we will have many more times

Bill said...

Hey Jeremy,

Great post. As someone who only survived as a kid by being "part of the system" with two parents who had a combined income of 20K or less (working full time) while I was growing up, I can say I know first hand that social programs are extremely important to the livelihood of some people who need them.

I will say, however, I have seen abuse and fraud as well, and that has been what's always bothered me. If someone has money to spend on drugs (I've seen it) then that's money they should be using to support their family and get off welfare - not support their habit. If someone is drawing disability for their back problems which caused them to have surgery, they shouldn't be out logging and getting paid under the table (I've seen it.) If someone is drawing WIC for their children, and then ties their child to a tree outside because she doesn't feel like watching him (yes, unfortunately, I've seen it,) the child should be taken away and she should be put in jail, and her support stopped.

The problem that I've always had with social programs isn't that we have them - they are important, and for those who don't abuse them, vital to their well-being. My problem has consistently been that there isn't enough oversight, and when you know there is abuse, there's almost next-to-nothing you can do in order to get authorities in to fix the situation.

I understand what you are saying in this post - there are those who definitely need the programs. However, at the same time, I'm reluctant to fully accept the numbers, especially ones that are self-reported or based off of tax-returns, etc. that do not take into account those who are abusing the system with under-the-table jobs.

I think I do have some common ground with you, however, in that I believe that the system doesn't help as many people as need it. I know in the case of my mother and I, she lost Mainecare for awhile because she was making too much money (at this time I was in college and living with only her.) I think she made 21 grand that year. I'm not willing to accept that she was making enough money to support myself and her, pay rent, buy food, pay car insurance to get to work, and have any quality of life. However, the state of Maine thought she was.

I think in the long and short of things, we need to:

a) Make it easier for people in this country to get access when they need it, and redefine poverty to be that you can at least afford rent, health insurance, eye care, dental care, heat, hotwater, food, car insurance, and all those "necessities." As someone making almost $50k a year, I can say that I don't have a lot of money left over after I do those things myself, let alone at 21k.

b) Make reporting abuse actually count for something, and have these cases investigated. Yes, I understand it takes time and effort and money to investigate it, but as someone entering law enforcement as a career, I can tell you the amount of money lost by the government in abuse and fraud each year (not just in this arena, mind you) is astounding.

c) Streamline the process and reorganize to eliminate redundant programs, as Colby suggests.

All around though, great post.

Michael said...

What a spirited post! Great job Jeremy. Your opening point, that yes you do have some views people do not associate with the left, but you still believe in progressivism is something I needed to read from you because I was wondering about that. Like Abner said, there's a lot of things that would be good to discuss, but a conversation is a much better place for that.

Right at the end I was curious to what you'd have to say about the negative income tax - and then you explained it, so great flow in your writing.

Well done.

Jeremy Corbally-Hammond said...

@Bill: Ha! My aunt used to be kept outside with a leash. They were different times, lol. In my grandmother's defense (and she really is a lovely lady), they lived next to a highway.

Buying drugs, working (in most cases) under the table, and child abuse are all illegal activities and there are mechanisms in place to enforce those laws. Instead of calling DHHS and telling them to cut off the offender's assistance - I'd just call the police.

@Michael: Thanks for the compliment!

Jeremy Corbally-Hammond said...

@Matt (Colby): Thanks for the comment, man!

@Everyone else so far - we need to get some friggin liberals reading/commenting on my blog now...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Jeremy, but it seems you're getting another conservative libertarian comment for now. Can't be helped. =P

I only just started reading your blog (you comment too often on Michael's for me to ignore you forever), and I have to say that so far I find you a very interesting read.* (That last sentence wasn't specifically related to this article, but please forgive me.)

*Free-market Greens are people I meet rarely enough to make it interesting when I do find one.

Regarding this post in particular, while I'm not entirely persuaded by your argument I am quite sympathetic to it, and might be persuaded upon reading one of your future posts. It helped a lot that you tied in pragmatic concerns to the idea of poverty reduction.

Jeremy Corbally-Hammond said...

Hi Hortensio!

Thank you for your comment and welcome to my blog!

I'd be interested in knowing what about the post was lacking in persuasion and what you might need to hear to change your mind. The discussion might fuel a new post!

Anonymous said...

Hullo Jeremy!

I suppose the first concern I'd like fleshed out is one of pragmatics: I am (moderately) convinced that something needs to be done if only for the sake of those unable to work or who had momentary (or chronic) bad luck,* but I'm not sure of how to go about it. You offered a compelling case that something should be done, but the government skeptic in me wonders what can be done. A difference of 'ought' and 'is'.

My second concern is that I am still not convinced that we should not discriminate between people who make good decisions with their welfare support and those who make extremely poor ones. Again, I see the value in doing something if only in support of the people around them and their dependents, but at the same time I don't want to throw money down a hole if people are going to make chronically bad financial choices. I am agnostic on this part of the issue.

My third concern is entirely beyond your control: I'm a stubbornly ideological libertarian who has trouble recognizing when government intervention is (or can be) justifiable and when it isn't. =P

(I also have trouble accepting "good enough" instead of "perfect" in a government program. Again, something I have to work with.)

Where I felt you were really persuasive was in separating poverty alleviation from other government subsidies and in recognizing that poverty will not be eradicated. (Acknowledging the limits of a social engineering policy is usually a good way to get conservative sympathy, in my experience. Well, my sympathy at least.)

*The sorts of welfare I am most sympathetic to, and the sort you addressed here. Bad luck happens to (almost) everyone, after all.

Jeremy Corbally-Hammond said...

I haven't forgotten you, Hortensio. I've just been really busy lately.

Anonymous said...

No worries, Jeremy. Life tends to get in the way. I haven't forgotten you either.

Your task of convincing me this year is much easier than last year's. Frankly, after reading your blog some more, I've come to wonder whether the 'liberaltarian' fusion might be possible after all.

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