Kudos to the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof for not only daring to question whether anti-poverty programs might actually harm some people more than they help them, but for doing some on-the-ground reporting about how that happens in specific individuals’ lives. His entire piece from Sunday is well worth reading, but here’s the crux of it:
This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.
Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.
Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.
Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.
Charles Murray, about whose book “Coming Apart” I wrote earlier this year (I’ve also previously noted the importance of marriage to ending child poverty, as Kristof did), argues the problems Kristof identifies are due to three laws of social programs, which he describes as:
1. The Law of Imperfect Selection. Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons [leading them to expand constantly]. …
2. The Law of Unintended Rewards. Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer. …
3. The Law of Net Harm. The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm [by encouraging more people to engage in the bad behavior in the first place, so that they can profit from making the desired change]. …
Read Murray’s entire comment for a fuller explanation of these three laws. And, yes, the proper emphasis here should be on some people being worse off sometimes — the argument made by most conservatives is not that government should provide no safety net, but that it should not catch and even ensnare people who can and should be responsible for their own well-being. Even marginal increases in dependency have long-term consequences because they accumulate over time — most often as generation after generation within particular families grow up seeing nothing but dependency. Kristof is right to focus on the effects of dependency on children.
Taken together, Murray’s post and Kristof’s column give us an important understanding about the fallibility of even well-intentioned government programs for the poor, and some ways that we ought to think about these programs as we try to end unnecessary dependency and get our nation’s finances under control.
– By Kyle Wingfield