Bill Dickens on Helping the Poor

In my post “Rich, Poor and Middle-Class” I wrote 

I am deeply concerned about the poor, because they are truly suffering, even with what safety net exists. Helping them is one of our highest ethical obligations. I am deeply concerned about the honest rich—not so much for themselves, though their welfare counts too—but because they provide goods and services that make our lives better, because they provide jobs, because they help ensure that we can get good returns for our retirement saving, and because we already depend on them so much for tax revenue. But for the middle-class, who count heavily because they make up the bulk of our society, I have a stern message. We are paying too high a price when we tax the middle class in order to give benefits to the middle-class—and taxing the rich to give benefits to the middle-class would only make things worse. The primary job of the government in relation to the middle-class has to be to help them help themselves, through education, through loans, through libertarian paternalism, and by stopping the dishonest rich from preying on the middle-class through deceit and chicanery. 

In his correspondence with Bryan Caplan, Bill Dickens gives a good picture of what government efforts to help the poor currently look like. The distinction between the suffering of the poor and the struggling of the middle class is clear in Bill’s description. Bill is arguing against Bryan’s desire to reduce support for the poor.  He argues persuasively that since the Clinton-era Welfare Reforms, government efforts to help the poor have been appropriate.

Note that because of the nature of the argument with Bryan, Bill does not address here the question of whether more should be done to help the poor.  There are two terms in what Bill writes that may need some explanation: “memes” and “leaky bucket.” Here is a link for “memes.” I didn’t find a good link for “leaky bucket." "Leaky bucket” is a metaphor economists use for the idea that a government policy intended to help the poor often has unintended side effects: (1) the poor acting in ways that make it more likely that they will get help and (2) those who are better off acting in ways that make it more likely that they won’t be asked to help.  

Since Bill’s argument is long, let me give you some of the highlights of what Bill writes to Bryan:

So this is the crux of it. You subscribe to two central right-wing memes: government coddles the poor and won’t make them face the tough choices everyone else does, and welfare recipients are overwhelmingly lazy and undeserving. Anyone with firsthand experience dealing with a wide range of the poor or those receiving government assistant (with the later being only a small subset of the former) knows these two things to be false.

Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to support their family, they know it would be better if their children’s father was there to help support their kids. There is no shortage of hectoring from society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media. Consider that even before the passage of TANF most women on welfare worked at least some during every year (on or off the books). Most welfare mothers are not drug abusers or alcoholics (when they have been tested only a tiny fraction fail). A lot had their children with a husband or boyfriend they had hoped to marry. A lot of the AFDC caseload cycled on and off welfare as people made repeated attempts to return to work (attempts that were often stymied by lack of adequate child care - one of the most common reasons for returning to welfare was being fired by a low wage employer for missing work when child care arrangements fell through).

Over and over when I talk to people about government income support programs I’m told that they have no objection to giving money to the truly needy, but that they don’t like supporting lazy bums who don’t like to work. When I tell them that overwhelmingly government support goes to families (usually single women) with children they don’t believe me.

Now let’s consider the case of a bucket that was probably too leaky and needed to be replaced. As you know I was converted by my experience with Clinton’s welfare reform task force to the belief that AFDC needed to be time limited. Over and over I heard young women tell me that they didn’t think much about having a baby because that is what people in their world did. “You get to be 16, you get yourself a baby and you get yourself a check and an apartment.” AFDC as a career choice was a serious problem back then. But even as we went around preparing the welfare reform we heard over-and-over again that the word was out that welfare was going away and you were going to have to do something else now. Starting in the early 90s - long before TANF actually limited benefits to 2 years - AFDC caseloads started dropping and ultimately dropped enormously. 

People know they make bad decisions. They often know when they are making them that they are bad. Telling them that they are being stupid isn’t news to them. Find ways to change the system to help them make better decisions and I’m all with you. Take money away from children because their mothers and fathers made bad choices I’m very disappointed. Overlook all the people who are receiving aid not because of bad choices, but bad luck and I’m more than disappointed - I’m angry.

… I’m not “outraged” by people who don’t want to pay taxes to support the government transfer system. A few of them may be selfish and/or racist jerks. There are few enough of them that I could care less. I believe that most people with that view are misinformed about who gets government transfers, how the programs are administered, the amount of the benefits, and how much of their taxes go to such programs. I think the vast majority of people, if they knew the facts, would not object to paying taxes for the system.

To me, given what I know, what Bill says has the ring of truth to it. But I would be interested in any evidence anyone has that contradicts what Bill says, especially anything that contradicts the passages I have quoted.