Human Events Blog

The dark side of the welfare state

Much notice has been given to a remarkable weekend column by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, in which he was brutally honest about the dark side of the welfare state:

This is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.       

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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.

(Emphasis mine.)  That’s pretty strong stuff, coming from a deck officer on the Death Star of the liberal media.  And there’s plenty more where that came from.  Kristof reviews numerous ways in which Big Government welfare programs can be not only expensive drains upon the public treasury, but actually counter-productive because of the perverse incentives they offer.  Kristof focuses on incentives against marriage and good education for children; he might also have usefully mentioned the panoply of benefits that can actually make welfare dependency pay better than earning a lower-middle-class salary, but perhaps that was a bridge too far.

Some passages from Kristof’s piece are quite remarkable, given the source.  For example:

There’s a danger in drawing too firm conclusions about an issue — fighting poverty — that is as complex as human beings themselves. I’m no expert on domestic poverty. But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.

Too bad that’s one hundred and eighty degrees opposite from the philosophy of the man Kristof’s paper just helped back into the White House for another four years.  There’s nothing about creating and seizing opportunities in Barack Obama’s philosophy, although he does like to appropriate the language occasionally, to make himself sound like a technocrat.  But here’s Nicholas Kristof sounding like one of Mitt Romney’s speechwriters!

A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage. Bravo to Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio for backing a landmark initiative to add one-eighth of 1 percent to the local sales tax to finance a prekindergarten program. Early interventions are not a silver bullet, and even programs that succeed as experiments often fall short when scaled up. But we end up paying for poverty one way or another, and early childhood education is far cheaper than adult incarceration. I hope that the budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead.

While some pre-kindergarten programs may have merit, “early interventions” don’t mean much when the kids are doomed to end up in the swamps of public education.  And if they try to escape from that, they’ll find Barack Obama and the rest of the Democrat Party pushing them right back into the quagmire with ten-foot poles, egged on by their teachers’ union paymasters.

As for marriage: sorry, but we’ve been re-defining that out of existence for decades, and the process is almost complete.  It’s strange to read Kristof writing like a Romney speechwriter, but even more bizarre to have him writing like one of Rick Santorum’s speechwriters.

Kristof’s not quite ready to embrace the conservative critique of the welfare state; he’s doing a little Hamlet-and-Yorick soliloquy with a conservative skull, while recommending small adjustments to a fundamentally broken system that has already put much of America into a social death spiral.

Writing at the American Enterprise Institute, longtime welfare critic Charles Murray describes three fatal flaws of Big Government social programs, none of which can be easily addressed through minor reforms or supplemental programs.  First is the tendency of benevolent bureaucrats to expand program eligibility every time they run into hard cases, “which in turn brings more people who don’t need the social transfer under its umbrella.”  Then there’s the problem Kristof muses on at length, in which perverse incentives are provided, prompting behavior such as pulling children out of literacy classes because illiteracy brings in welfare money.

But the third flaw, which Murray terms “The Law of Net Harm,” is the real killer:

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.

This is not as obvious as the first two laws, but just as inexorable. My favorite chapter of “Losing Ground” [Murray's landmark book on malfunctioning social programs] is a thought experiment about a government program that uses financial rewards to reduce smoking. If the rewards are small, nothing will change. If they are large enough to induce a significant number of people to quit smoking, the program will inevitably lead to more people who take up smoking in the first place and the net number of inveterate smokers.

In other words, the perverse incentives of the welfare state are luring people to the edge of generational black holes.  Even when these programs don’t ensnare children, they can ruin an adult’s productivity for life… while increasing the size of the hard-core dependency class, which is notoriously disintereted in any talk of reducing government spending to achieve fiscal balance.  Over at the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone mentions another example of “soul-crushing dependency”: the disturbing rise in the number of people who are more-or-less permanently cashing out of the American workforce by going on long-term disability.

The power to tax is the power to destroy.  You get more of what you subsidize.  Isn’t it funny how liberal thinkers keep orbiting around these conservative chestnuts… but only after the latest election and its anti-conservative demagoguery have been safely brought to a satisforactory conclusion?  The immense machinery of Food Stamp Nation is grinding along on auto-pilot now.  It would require a massive political effort, combining effective conservative leadership with a groundswell of public support, to shut it down.  That’s not what Nicholas Kristof has in mind, and anything less is mere observation, not a call to action.

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