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A Partial Defense of “Strings Attached”

Last Tuesday, the Washington Post published two articles that criticized a recent raft of Republican initiatives that demean the poor by attaching somewhat humiliating strings to welfare programs. One was a Wonkblog piece by Emily Badger arguing that most “strings attached” legislation perpetuates a double-standard about government spending and fails to produce any benefit. The other was a typically-blistering editorial from Dana Milbank criticizing recent Republican spending priorities.

The underlying argument here is against attaching “strings” to anti-poverty legislation, whether for reasons of dignity or because doing so would constitute a double standard–we do not, after all, attach strings to middle-class benefits. At the risk of engaging a strawman, though, it is worth defending making poverty aid conditional in some circumstances, or even accepting policies that treat the poor somewhat differently than the well-off.

If you read contemporary historical work engaging with poverty and class struggles, almost universally, writers bend over backwards to avoid assigning blame onto poor people themselves for their station in life. The underlying argument is that various pathologies that affect the poor at different times correlated directly with underlying socioeconomic factors. For example, poor people suffered from tuberculosis at higher rates than rich people at the start of the twentieth century. At the time, well-off people stigmatized tuberculosis sufferers and attributed their maladies to their bad sanitary habits. (Nancy Tomes, in her excellent Gospel of Germs, notes that in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, TB metamorphosed from a “house disease” to a “tenement house disease,” associated with the poor.) Never mind that the poor ventilation and close-quarters of the slums were a source of increased local TB morbidity. Disease, unfairly, became a sign of moral failure.

In a noble effort to rehabilitate and rescue the character and humanity of the historically stigmatized, historians have opted to gloss over and deny the significance of more intangible factors in shaping history. In this conception, the individual is helpless in the face of structural inequalities; the injustice of their systems sealed their fates. Intangible factors–things that we once would have labeled “virtues”–have no place in these narratives, because they cannot be detected by our analysis.

While much of the current historical project is about assigning or attributing agency to the afflicted and the lower classes, this seems to end at the ability to rescue oneself from one’s circumstances. In the academy, agency is all about resisting the structures of oppression, not about opportunities for individual improvement.

By writing about those historical injustices, the story goes, we will open the eyes of our current students and society, so that remaining injustices will be fought and conquered. This is not the explicit intent of academic writing on history, but it underlies many of the arguments. (One can most easily detect this by noting the handful of asides in books referencing current circumstances. They almost universally point in that direction.)

There is a neat correlation between the materialism of the historical analysis and the implications for policy today. If historically, socioeconomic factors have dictated outcomes exclusively, then there is no justifiable place for designing policies and government that foster “virtue” in an effort to combat social ills. Therefore, any strings attached to anti-poverty programs are just expressions of resentment from the privileged classes; what the poor really need, under this analysis, is money and support from government. Considering the role of “virtue” in these discussions is, at best, naive, and at worst, thinly-veiled discrimination.

Returning to our two articles, as their point of departure, both Badger and Milbank focus on Missouri’s House Bill 813, which aims to restrict people from using food-stamps to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.” This bill in particular feels mean-spirited. I cringed when I read this anecdote in Milbank’s column:

“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs” with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, [Republican state legislator Rick Brattin] explained, according to The Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”

Bills designed to put “strings” on aid should never be about punishing the poor. Poverty is not a crime, and people who are poor should not be blamed for their condition. The “surf and turf” bill, as Milbank deems it, is not a good bill under this standard.

But the broader argument seems to come from the current academic perspective on poverty: its causes are socioeconomic, so its solutions must be socioeconomic. The idea that there are other factors that could better the condition of the poor–ones that do not show up in the history or the literature because they are intangible–is simply not discussed. But this view is unnecessarily narrow. In something as complex and multicausal as poverty, it is conceivable that by limiting the scope of our analysis, we are missing texture and key factors behind such phenomena.

Indeed, we cannot go to the archives or the datasets for that extra texture; we must go mainly to philosophy and passed-down wisdom. There is no regression analysis that will tell us that Aristotelian virtues like temperance and prudence are good foundations for a society that should cut through all of our legislation; we are only guessing. But we are guessing with millennia of lived experience on our side.

For example, in her excellent The Up Side of Down, Megan McArdle writes about Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program, known as HOPE. The HOPE program is targeted at drug offenders and offers a substantial increase in the number of random drug tests over the standard probation program. Violators are put in jail for a few days, without exception. But this is in contrast to the standard program, which sees probationers accruing violations and eventually winding up back in prison for much longer sentences. As McArdle puts it, “the best way to fight crime is not harsher punishment, it is inevitable punishment” (McArdle, 225).

HOPE is far, far more paternalistic than the standard parole system. But the logic is sound for poverty programs. At its core, HOPE aims to foster virtues like temperance, forbearance, and prudence by linking personal feedback systems more directly to conduct. The person who develops those habits will not get out of poverty by default, but combined with well-targeted aid, they stand a better chance than the person who just gets the aid alone. There may not be concrete historical evidence on this, but one would not expect to see such evidence when dealing with something so nebulous.

I am not suggesting that anti-poverty legislation should not include funding. But we have a responsibility to keep the idea of building virtue in mind when crafting legislation, and specifically anti-poverty legislation. This may be a form of paternalism, but the view that poor people cannot abide certain strings that are designed to help them borders on infantilization. If poor people need the most help from society–and if we agree that governments at various levels have a role to play in providing that help–then assistance should be more comprehensive than simple transfer payments.

Lastly, if limited resources mean that these programs can only be implemented for people below a certain income level, then the programs should be limited, but not eliminated from consideration. To dispense with the logic of such programs because they cannot feasibly be universal does not make sense; it is a companion to arguments that care more about inequality than about the standard of living and growth.

We can and should try to fight poverty–and other social problems–on multiple fronts. That means socioeconomic aid, as well as sometimes attaching strings to that aid. The idea that simple, no-strings-attached cash transfers are the only way to help poor people get out of poverty is as ideological a position as one that advocates for moral betterment alone.

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209 thoughts on “A Partial Defense of “Strings Attached”

  1. Paternalism is one of those things that gets really uncomfortable when you really start thinking about it.

    To what extent do we, as a society, have an obligation to help those who cannot help themselves?

    To what extent do we, as a society, have an obligation to help those who cannot help themselves become those who can help themselves and, not only that, become those who can help others who cannot help themselves?

    Suddenly, you’re in creepytown.

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    • Paternalistic legislation like welfare legislation work best when they are universal rather than aimed at a particular group. The anti-smoking program was aimed at everybody and basically ended up being a smashing success. Our most enduring welfare programs are the ones that benefit nearly everybody like social security or Medicare, available to all over 65. If a piece of paternalistic or welfare legislation is only aimed at a particular group than it tends to be less than successful for a variety of reasons.

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    • Small l-liberal societies have always struggled what to do with people that can not conform to society’s expectations. In more illiberal societies, you just force people to conform through various oppressive measures but this isn’t possible in a small l-liberal society because small l-liberalism is based on the idea that there are multiple versions of the good life and people should generally be allowed to live as they see fit. Still, even in small-l liberal societies lots of people struggle with this.

      The typical Western lifestyle was based on the idea that you grow up, get some sort of educating and job training, get married, raise a family, and eventually pass on. There were varieties based on country, class, and whether you were Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Jewish but the basic idea was the same. Some Western cultures encouraged early marriage and others were more indulgent towards having a meandering and somewhat wild youth but the eventually expectation was to settle down and raise a family. This version of life pretty much dominated all Western societies until the mid-20th century. There were always people that could not or would not conform to this ideal though. They weren’t bad, immoral, or even incompetent but they could not live the typical Western lifestyle. For centuries, they suffered from some sort of informal pressures to conform but philosophical liberalism prevented the full coercion available to more illiberal societies.

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  2. I always thought the Strict Father-Nurturing Mother contrast in foundational conceptual metaphors/frames was a bit too heavy handed as an analysis, but man, George Lakoff would love this post.

    That said, I’m not sure operational conditioning of the sort in HOPE is really the best way to teach adults, or perhaps even children, virtue. I mean, this is 5 or 6 Kohlbergian stages from virtues.

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  3. I think what would help this article Dan are some positive examples. You talk about instances where anti-poverty measures are doing it wrong, but could you give an example of one that makes sense? If no real-world examples apply, how about sketching out a proposal you think would be better than a simple cash transfer (the form of anti-poverty measure most beloved by economists).

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    • I’ll give you one. I’ve written about my mother, her first born just two months after she turned 16.

      When Carter was president, we were living in pretty desperate poverty. (I’ve written two posts about this; one in the Love Symposium, one on birth control and reproductive rights; though both post are focused on other topics.) My mom enrolled in a CETA-grant program, and was trained to be a lab tech. She had to maintain grades, get there everyday, which wasn’t always easy as a single mother with small children. She did become a lab tech, and then a histologist, and she was very good at it; earned money that not only lifted our family out of poverty, but turned us into contributing tax-paying citizens.

      That program included health insurance for us, food subsidies, and cash payment to her while she attended; she couldn’t have done it otherwise, she’s have had to keep working minimum-wage jobs.

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        • The process worked in this case. So, yay! A good story with a happy ending. A good reason to argue against abolition of programs of this nature (not that I do so argue, but I do encounter such arguments from time to time).

          But some people wash out of programs like that. What to do then? Is an analysis of why they washed out important, and if so, who conducts that analysis? If certain benefits (like the dependent care support) are contingent upon enrollment in a job training program like this, then it can sometimes be difficult to know when dis-enrollment occurs — people miss classes for all sorts of legitimate reasons but also sometimes just drop out and don’t even bother filling out the paperwork. But that system is subject to gaming as well: My friends who teach at the local community college report lots of folks on the first few days of classes and sometimes explicit questions aimed at how many classes they have to come to in order to preserve benefit eligibility.

          That a jobs training or education-encouragement system can be and will be gamed, sometimes cynically, doesn’t strike me as a reason not to have the system at all, but patrolling the system against gamesmanship strikes me as a proposition well past the point of diminishing returns. So the system simply tolerates the abusers, figuring (mostly correctly) that most of the abusers will eventually tire of the charade of pretending to be college students or job trainees.

          Should other kinds of public welfare programs like SNAP or Section VIII be treated substantially differently?

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          • When I was coding welfare systems, we set up such jobs program (CETA replacement); it was gamed by employers who needed highly specialized skills. We (meaning the state) paid to train a dozen or so people, the companies would hire a couple, and the rest would not be able to find work because the skills in question were so specialized. I blame much of this on the state, for not actually doing the due diligence to determine the demand; but that’s what happened.

            One aspect of this that deserves serious frisking since that time is how much employers have shifted work training onto employees. I’d love to see some good economic analysis of that shift.

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          • That is the problem with any welfare, someone will figure out a way to game it. Or, if the system is designed to defeat gaming, it becomes unwieldy and can’t fulfill it’s purpose.

            Really the best that can be done is to let it be gamed, and then audit it regularly looking for gaming patterns. When found, investigate & prosecute for fraud, or demand payback, or something along those lines.

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          • But that system is subject to gaming as well: My friends who teach at the local community college report lots of folks on the first few days of classes and sometimes explicit questions aimed at how many classes they have to come to in order to preserve benefit eligibility.

            If I were a single parent trying to enroll in something like that I’d probably ask similar questions. And it wouldn’t be about gaming the system, it’d be about finding out what I had to do in the event of a family emergency.

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    • Here’s one that comes to mind: Let’s say you are working on an anti-poverty initiative that is along the lines of “job training”; specifically, it is aimed to build computer skills. Cash bonuses for completion, or timely completion of projects, would be a string worth considering as part of that. (This could take the form of either the carrot or the stick, for what it’s worth; it would just depend on the framing.)

      For what it’s worth, this to me is a local-level thing. I wouldn’t want the federal government involved to any extent other than block-granting.

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      • Training programs are so expensive that virtually all of the funding is federal, and the federal government doesn’t just give money for such things and say, “Do with it what you will.”

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  4. But of course we can and should attach strings to the delivery of public assistance. Whenever the taxpayers deliver a benefit, we have the moral right to do it conditionally.

    Which is the argument I use to assert our right to impose taxes and regulation on the beneficiaries of the legal and physical infrastructure of the marketplace.

    This isn’t a snarky riposte. Inasmuch as we assert a moral obligation from the community to the individual, there should be a complementary obligation from the individual to the community.

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  5. It certainly can be reasonable to attach some some sort of string or hammer to a benefit. But it has to based very much on problems that are firmly identified in data or on specific behaviors. So it might be reasonable to say that for a person to get probation they do substance abuse treatment, have an ignition interlock on their car and not drink if they happen to be in jail for their third DUI. Those strings are directly related to the persons behavior.

    But what about benefits for poor people like TANF? If there was proof that TANF recipients had a huge rate of drug abuse, which they don’t, then UA’s might make sense. But, like i said, there isn’t proof TANF recipients are using tons of drugs, so the use of UA’s doesn’t make sense and is much more likely about punishing poor people. ( or, in Florida, making money for Rick Scott). I don’t really give a crap about that Rep’s sad tears about some poor person buying crab legs. It could be true certainly but it also pretty close to St Ronnie’s unsubstantiated stories about poor folk buying steaks. In any case an anecdote isn’t data and one persons upset at the store shouldn’t drive policy.

    People are poor for all sorts of reasons; some structural, some generational, some substance abuse or mental health or just plain bad life choices. For most people a hammer or a string isn’t’ going to address those problems. If drugs are their problem, then pee tests just lead to trying to fake the tests. What they need is substance abuse treatment when they decide they want to get clean. Maybe they should open or fund more treatment facilities.

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    • Perhaps job programs (employment, with help obtaining it, or training), with reasonable exemption criteria? We actually have that for some TANF programs.

      But what to do with people who work full time but still require some form of government assistance? What could we do to make those people less reliant on assistance? With what virtues are they not sufficiently supplied?

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    • It could be true certainly but it also pretty close to St Ronnie’s unsubstantiated stories about poor folk buying steaks.

      I’ve seen poor people do that. Mostly they buy the steaks from the green-meat department. I asked one why she was doing it and it was a special treat for her kids because she was able to get that steak for half price and cook it that night for the oldest’s birthday dinner.

      People are poor for all sorts of reasons; some structural, some generational, some substance abuse or mental health or just plain bad life choices. For most people a hammer or a string isn’t’ going to address those problems. If drugs are their problem, then pee tests just lead to trying to fake the tests. What they need is substance abuse treatment when they decide they want to get clean. Maybe they should open or fund more treatment facilities.

      Pardon my perspective but this is why I have such a negative view of religion. The majority of the people insisting that all these strings have to exist and all these very negative and draconian punishments have to exist is that they are still at the “do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you” level of moral growth, inculcated by the Christian religion that teaches that moral level and only that moral level from the top (God) on down.

      Between that and a culture that seeks immediate gratification and insists on some kind of unattainable perfection and innocence from anyone seeking help lest it be “their own fault”, horrible things are done in the name of so-called tough love. Too often the “help” offered isn’t really help and the up-front costs of programs that would do much better long-term are seen as too expensive when the system can just be made more draconian and more people thrown into the for-profit prison system. After all once your prison system is seeking to generate a profit you’ll always have a demand for slaves…er “prisoners” won’t you?

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        • this is a disturbing question. It sort of implies that believers have a moral right to committing acts of charity that non-believers don’t have (and may explain the difference in charitable donation). I’m thinking on it, and might respond more when I get back, but there’s some loaded quality to this that perturbs/disturbs me a lot, and I cannot quite put my finger on it.

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          • If someone said “I believe in Charity because it is my Christian duty!”, I would have a clear idea of their foundation for Charity. I wouldn’t have to ask about it except to fully flesh it out.

            If someone said “I believe in Charity because it is one of the pillars of Islam!”, it’d be similar.

            If someone says “I believe in Charity but not because of all of that organized religious bull”, I don’t know why they believe in Charity. Do they do it because of reasons related to the Golden Rule? Do they do it because they know that without Charity, there might be a socialist revolution? Do they do it because of their own private unorganized religious beliefs?

            I have a passing familiarity with the organized religion arguments for and justification of Charity. As such, I’m not particularly curious about it.

            Unorganized? That stuff is interesting.

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            • You’ll probably find it varies heavily from individual to individual, with few people having thought much past the basic “It’s nice to be nice” impulse or the “That could be me” impulse.

              Humans are an empathic species, at least when it comes to individuals. (The suffering of a society is distant, impossible to process other than intellectually. The suffering of a person in front of is us immediate, easily understood).

              Then there’s the fact that just because one is not religious, does not mean one is immune to the society from which they spring. Charity is portrayed as a positive thing in American culture, in the dominant (and very active) religions in America, and in American media. (Not that I disagree).

              Accepting charity as therefore moral and good is basically to accept the raw foundations of American society, so there’s a lot of that too.

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                • Never said it didn’t. You were just wondering from what roots non-religious charity springs from, and while it varies highly, I suggested some common ones.

                  It’s ALSO human nature to think “if I’m giving you money, you should use it the way I intended it to be used”.

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        • What a loaded and insulting question. This overrepeated pretense that those who do not follow some ridiculous cult lack the ability to arrive at a moral code is one of the strongest objections I have to religion.

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          • Um, ACIS, I am not assuming that you lack the ability to arrive at a moral code.

            I’m wondering how you got to the moral code you got to.

            If it’s a variant of “Well, I was raised Christian and so it’s basically that only without God or Hell and that’s why I have to scream at people because in the absence of them being judged, it’s up to me”, then I’m cool with that too.

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            • Yeah, I think the question is bull too. Seems to me that it’s just a cheap shot at an ideology rather than a real challenge to specific views. At the end of the day, if you’re specific policy views are justified by a phrase similar to “God says so” and *that* justification is viewed as exculpatory, then I think we’re in real trouble.

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              • Stillwater, I do not think that “God Says So” is exculpatory.

                I do, however, see it as sufficiently foundational that I don’t need to understand where the person is coming from when they argue for a position based on what God happens to say.

                Please understand: I’m pretty post-Christian myself. I’m not asking this because I think that people require a deity to have a morality. Of course they don’t.

                I’ll quote myself from earlier: “I have a passing familiarity with the organized religion arguments for and justification of Charity. As such, I’m not particularly curious about it.”

                I am curious here. Sure, I’m going to argue against any answer I’m given, but that’s because I’m curious here.

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                • I do, however, see it as sufficiently foundational that I don’t need to understand where the person is coming from when they argue for a position based on what God happens to say.

                  So, when someone says “God is Love” and another person says “an Eye for an Eye” and another person says “love your enemies” and another person says “god hates fags” and another person says (lets move outside Christianity shall we?) “mocking the prophet is punishable by death” …. you understand where all those people are coming from but you don’t understand where some godless soul is at when expressing their morality? It’s almost like your a theistist, Jaybrd. WHich is a fun word to say and maybe a funner thing to be!

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                  • I think that you are using “understand” differently than I am using “understand”.

                    When a Muslims says “mocking The Prophet is punishable by death!”, I am not left wondering “what is that belief founded upon?”

                    I understand what the belief is founded upon well enough that I don’t have questions about it.

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                    • Jaybird, If you’re interested in “What is that belief founded upon?”, you’re being lazy if you stop at the Bible. Lots of stuff in the bible–but the reason some people focus on the love your neighbor bit and others focus on the sodomy has to do with foundations much deeper than the particulars of a religious doctrine.

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                      • I was under the impression that I didn’t stop at the Bible and, when I encountered a belief that I suspect that I was unfamiliar with (specifically ACIS’s), I asked about it.

                        Is the assumption that asking the question is challenging the validity of the belief?

                        If I said that I wasn’t challenging the validity but curious, would that change anything?

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                • Jaybird: I’ll quote myself from earlier: “I have a passing familiarity with the organized religion arguments for and justification of Charity. As such, I’m not particularly curious about it.”

                  So why, exactly do I need a justification for charity? Because I don’t believe god told me to be charitable?

                  See, I’d say some people say god tells them this because it’s generally helped people survive and get along and prosper. That we grant the authority to god to say stuff that we’re supposed to do to make most people we know about better off. We thrived because charity helps us thrive, so to maintain charity as a social custom, we decide that god demands/encourages/whatever charitable behavior.

                  But I don’t particularly feel I need to have someone tell me about being good to others, evidence of my own life and what I’ve learned in books and art suggest this, too.

                  To me, charity (and not just the non-profit, tax-code kind of charity) is simply good manners, the golden rule, and seven generations. Seems self-evident, to borrow a phrase from our founding documents.

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                  • Hey, you can do whatever you want. Please understand that I’m asking because I am curious. If you see my curiosity as something that isn’t your freaking problem, then, by all means, imply that I’m assuming that you’ve got no moral ground to stand on when I ask the question.

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                  • Here you say: “To me, charity (and not just the non-profit, tax-code kind of charity) is simply good manners, the golden rule, and seven generations. ”

                    Which makes sense to me… but it seems to me that this foundation allows for strings to be attached (or, at least, doesn’t preclude the tying of strings).

                    Tying “seven generations” into it, it seems to me that one of the important goals of charity is to eventually end up with people who do not need charity. Certainly not seven generations’ worth of them.

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                    • Jaybird:
                      Here you say: “To me, charity (and not just the non-profit, tax-code kind of charity) is simply good manners, the golden rule, and seven generations. ”

                      Which makes sense to me… but it seems to me that this foundation allows for strings to be attached (or, at least, doesn’t preclude the tying of strings).

                      Tying “seven generations” into it, it seems to me that one of the important goals of charity is to eventually end up with people who do not need charity. Certainly not seven generations’ worth of them.

                      Yes, it’s a foundation that allows for strings to be attached, it’s partly a question about the charitable nature of the strings that we’re discussing, or so it seems to me.

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                      • Well, what is the goal (or, more accurately, what are the goals) of charity?

                        Off the top of my head:

                        1) Help the other person in the very short term
                        2) Self-regard
                        3) Help the other person in the medium term
                        4) Help the other person in the long term.

                        We may want to switch 1 and 2 as appropriate.

                        Strings, it seems to me, are tied to 2, 3, and 4 and not so much to 1. If you see 1 as the only real reason for charity, I can see strings as being very offensive. If you order things differently (and there are reasons to order things differently), strings become part of what you’re trying to achieve.

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                    • Tying “seven generations” into it, it seems to me that one of the important goals of charity is to eventually end up with people who do not need charity. Certainly not seven generations’ worth of them.

                      The number of people who are generationally in need of charity is extremely low. The vast majority of those who need help only need it in the short term. This argument is a non-starter because it’s just another strawman.

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                      • This argument is a non-starter because it’s just another strawman.

                        If someone is making the argument, you don’t get to call it a strawman. They’re making the argument, not attacking an argument that no one else is making.

                        If someone is using a premise that is false, you should say “one of your premises is false!”

                        Then the argument could become one of “the research into the numbers that I’ve looked into show me that the number of recipients of what is called ‘generational welfare’ has gone down significantly since Clinton’s Welfare Reform that tied more strings to Welfare rather than cutting them. Is there a connection? Is the correlation due to other factors entirely? What’s going on here?”

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                          • Then I totally understand where you are coming from in your theory of charitable giving, Zic. Thank you.

                            Out of curiosity, are you opposed to strings entirely, do you see how they have some (limited) value in some (limited) circumstances, or do you think that so long as they’re the right strings then they ought to be tied to the charity? (I’m pretty sure that everybody would agree that the wrong strings shouldn’t be tied to charity. The disagreements would be over what the wrong strings are (and maybe whether the wrong strings would be worse than no strings) but not over whether the wrong strings shouldn’t be used.)

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                            • I think strings are perfectly fine; it’s just the kind of strings, so I totally plead guilty to policy preference. My policy would be to treat women right; educate them, give the control of their reproduction, and equal access to the market, recognizing that children are a social benefit to all of us. I would put strings on the people who want to limit that.

                              There’s also some stuff about nature in there, but doing the first might take us a long way to doing the second; and women are prone to care about those things, anyway.

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        • OK, why are people offended by this question? Has Jaybird ever struck anyone as being self-righteously religious such that one could argue he is making an implication that the irreligious have no moral foundation?

          Seriously? Jaybird?

          Take a deep breath, y’all.

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      • The majority of the people insisting that all these strings have to exist and all these very negative and draconian punishments have to exist is that they are still at the “do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you” level of moral growth…

        Where exactly is that, relative to the “self-righteously generous with other people’s money” level.

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              • Burt Likko, Could you explain what was so bad about ACIS’s statement. One of the many problems I have with the fundies is the amount of hypocrisy I see within their within their ranks. Please type slow and use small words because I am one of those liberals that Brandon Burg called stupid about a month ago and we all know he is never, ever wrong.

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                • I was incredibly insulted by ‘s comment. Not only was it an ugly strawman argument, it made an accusation of a mentality of theft. It was ridiculous and hypocritical.

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                • Well, assuming Burt was only warning ACIS, and not Brandon as well, I believe it would be because ACIS levelled an insult at Brandon directly, while Brandon did not insult any person or group directly, but rather asked about a mentality some people have.

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                • For one thing, Brandon isn’t a fundamentalist hypocrite. For another, Brandon’s criticism was no more personal than what he was responding to, but ACIS immediately responded with a(n inaccurate) insult directed at Brandon’s personal character.

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                • If did do that, I missed it and I would have called him out on it had I seen it. I’m not perfect, and I can’t be on the blog all the time. When I am on the blog, and I see something that looks like a personal attack, I try to point it out. Sorry if I missed one that was aimed at you.

                  @acis’s comment called hypocritical and selfish. That makes it a personal attack — it goes to @brandon-berg’s character and qualities as a person and not to the strength of his argument. While I am not Christian myself, the response also hints at Christians in general being hypocritical and selfish (yes, I know that if you parse it out finely it only accuses certain kinds of Christians of being that way) and it’s not fair to characterize a whole group and all of its members as possessing those qualities.

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                • I am one of those liberals that Brandon Burg called stupid about a month ago and we all know he is never, ever wrong.

                  I just searched Brandon’s comments going back to the first of February and found no such interaction. Can you please provide a link?

                  Please type slow and use small words

                  Brandon may not have called you stupid, but seeing as you threw this immature shit in Burt’s direction, I may be inclined to feel that way.

                  Seriously. Don’t do that again. If you have a genuine problem, please approach it in a way so that I don’t think that you just got out of diapers.

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                  • Dave, I am not in the least bit interested in slogging through BB,s replies to locate that paragraph. If I say something was said, it happened. Since I find you uninteresting and BB a jerk, and don’t want to be banned for bad jokes, from this point forward I will treat you two the same way I treated Bragging Boy before he disappeared and Goat Tee Guy before he was banned.

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                    • Dave, I am not in the least bit interested in slogging through BB,s replies to locate that paragraph…

                      You don’t have to be, but I was because if I found something, I would have said something to about it. We don’t catch everything around here, but do know that I took up the issue on the best possible faith and set aside my personal feelings about the way you approached this issue with Burt.

                      If I say something was said, it happened.

                      If I say that I went to see if something happened and found nothing to show that anything happened, then you’ll understand why I will came to a different conclusion.

                      and don’t want to be banned for bad jokes

                      Bad jokes will not get you banned. I love bad jokes. Ask James Pearce. He made a really bad joke when he called me a caveman last week (?). It is no joke that I look so damn good in a loin cloth.

                      Uninteresting…yeah right.

                      from this point forward I will treat you two the same way I treated Bragging Boy before he disappeared and Goat Tee Guy before he was banned.

                      I have no idea who they are or how you treated them or how it relates to me. For a moment there, I thought you were my ex-girlfriend. She was a bit crazy that way.

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                • Thick skin is useful.
                  A certain commenter here once suggested my communitarian leanings would make me a suitable concentration camp guard.

                  I still treasure that comment.

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                • My only recollection of any unfriendly interaction with you is in Linky Friday 104, when you called me “the boring bupkis from banalsville” because I referred to Elizabeth Warren as the Senator from Buzzfeed. Before that I didn’t even realize you were a Democrat. I may have been confusing you with Damon.

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              • Brandon’s comment (however you feel about how he stated it) has value. It makes an argument with a strongly implied thesis.

                And, yes, the fact that he didn’t say “you personally are less moral than you think you are” matters.

                If we were to fault his comment, we’d then also have to look at the one he was responding to:
                they are still at the “do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you” level of moral growth

                This is almost exactly the same level of attack on others that Brandon used. In fact, that’s something he built in as a feature into his comment. He is illustrating how easy it is to claim moral superiority over people you disagree with, which is far more clear than the approach I’d have taken of trying to argue against the claim directly.

                None of this is close to true of the “You must be…” comment.

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  6. A couple of things:

    First, I’m really not clear what the HOPE program has to do with the rest of your piece. Sure, maybe Hawaii is doing some interesting things with people on parole, but what does that have to do with public assistance except that people on public assistance are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than those who are not?

    Second, in addition to what said above, if poverty really is “complex and multicausal” as you say (it is), why is it necessary that we go after these intangible, unnoticeable things that you say cause it, rather than dealing with the causes we know present? We have data that suggest some set of responses, so why don’t we just use those responses and see if they work, and to what extent they work? Saying “no, actually, the real causes of poverty are these other things that can’t possibly show up in the data and they need to be our priority when we try to do something about poverty because” just doesn’t make sense to me.

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    • My purpose of the HOPE example was that it was the most paternalistic government program I could think of. It implicitly emphasizes building virtues as part of its methodology, granting that assistance to the poor and drug prosecutions are not one in the same.

      My point is that we can and should do both, rather than just one or the other. I was writing in response to a couple of pieces that emphasized the “double standard” or the “dignity” side against strings, but I think we’d get better policy solutions if we at least concerned ourselves with both sides.

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      • Reversing the order a bit, data seems to indicate (by your own admission) that the no-strings methods are what we should be doing. We just have some intuitions that we ought to be attaching strings to stuff. Are you suggesting literally doing both of these, so we have a no-strings floor and then if you meet additional requirements you get extra benefits? I could get behind that. This seemed like an argument for attaching extra requirements to all our public assistance programs, despite the fact that we have good reason to believe that’s a bad idea. Which strikes me as ridiculous.

        On the HOPE stuff, I’m still having difficulty seeing the connection. How do we apply the lessons of HOPE to public assistance programs? They’re after very different things; HOPE wants its participants to not take some action, while public assistance is trying to pull people out of a situation they’re in. There are times when they’re in that situation because of some action that they take regularly, but that isn’t always the case. How do the lessons of HOPE apply when someone has more things that need to be done than they have time to do them, and we don’t know how they’re going to prioritize? Do we have a right to prioritize for them? How do we even know what all the demands on their time are going to be?

        Maybe there’s someone who’s working three jobs to make ends meet, and we give them some form of assistance so they only need one of them now. It would be great if we could get that person to use their newly freed up time to get training so their now-single job can be replaced with one that pays enough for them to get off public assistance entirely, but suppose they have a sick aunt somewhere else, and the system doesn’t know about it. They instead use their new time to take care of this family member. Do we throw them off the public assistance rolls because they’ll never leave otherwise? Do we demand that they give their aunt up to the system and hope that things work out? What if we ask them to do that and they say no? Do we have a right to force them to? If so, how do we go about it?

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    • I second this.

      The argument that injecting some certainty into our rehabilitation system is probably a good one. Less ‘forgiveness’, but less consequences.

      I actually think a good argument can be made that racking ‘points’ and slapping people with a large punishment when they cross a threshold is, quite possibly, the dumbest system we can think of. I.e., like with driver’s licenses. Human brains are already crappy at dealing with risk, that system just makes it worse. If the punishment for speeding was losing your car for one day by every five miles over you were, that might actually deter speeding in a way the ‘points’ system does not, although it would be hard to figure out a way that could work with the legal system.(1)

      But that only has something to do with poverty if welfare is some sort of ‘rehabilitation’. Which it’s not.

      1) And, of course, whether or not we actually *wish* to enforce the speeding laws is another matter. I’m just pointing out we do a really bad job at it.

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  7. You could have just as easily referred to the recent bill that was passed by the Kansas House. One of the provisions forbade welfare recipients from spending benefits on cruise ships. Putting aside any other considerations it’s just stupid. Does anyone seriously believe that welfare recipients are using their meager benefits — which have just been cut to ensure the Koch brothers, based in Wichita, don’t have to part with their precious pennies — on Caribbean cruises? There’s a serious disconnect from reality there.

    But putting aside the political optics on both sides, I have a more fundamental objection to the virtue framing, for which I’ll refer to the father of modern industrial quality control, Dr. Edward Deming. His fundamental thesis was that quality problems are always problems in management. Stated more generally, systemic problems have systemic causes which demand systemic solutions.

    The current statistics are that somewhere close to 15% of Americans live below the official poverty line and it’s natural to surmise that at least that many more aren’t doing a lot better. Sure, I can see how asserting that something close to 100,000,000 folks are lacking in essential virtues and therefore to a large degree deserve their fate can be emotionally soothing if you don’t happen to be among their number. But does it actually make logical sense? I think not, and I’ve never seen convincing evidence that our wealthy, as a class, are a bit more virtuous than the poor. They just have more money.

    I have quite a bit more I could say about the systemic causes of poverty but I would be heading into guest post territory due to the breadth of the subject. Just suffice it to say that beating up on the poor has never in history actually resulted in fewer poor people.

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      • Burt Likko:
        You know what they say about guest posts? “We’d love it if you’d go ahead and write one.”

        You know, I probably have about a half dozen GP’s stacked up in a queue in my head. The problem? The laptop I used to haul around with me on the road bit the dust (basically the damn screen fell off) and I haven’t been able to afford a replacement. Yes, I have access to a computer at home, but my home-time is dedicated to being a dad and the ever-present honey do list. So when I have time (like today) I don’t have the means and vice versa.

        I don’t need a lot — $300 – $400 would do nicely — but there’s always a higher priority. Maybe I should do one of those Internet begging thingies.

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      • zic,

        I don’t know that I have a post’s worth to say about it. Between Brownback and his allies in the state assembly Kansas is being transformed into a Tea Party / right libertarian wet dream.

        Personally, I think it’s going to blow up in their little piggy faces. Their latest move, in order to shore up revenues without reversing the cuts in the income tax, is to change the method of assessing agricultural land which would result in farmers facing a 437% increase in their property taxes. No, I didn’t leave out a decimal point.

        Now, as something of a Georgist, I’m not entirely opposed to the move. Ag land has been drastically under-appraised for about forever, and for the same reason that pig farmers can pretty much pollute at will and stick municipal water consumers with the bill. They’ve had a good run of it and all good things must eventually come to an end. But they’re not going to take it lightly and if the R’s lose the farmers it’s game over. Remember that our last governor (not counting the interim Mark Davidson) was Kathleen Sibelius and historically Kansas has been a moderate conservative state. This pull to the hard right is uncharacteristic and I believe driven as much by Obama derangement syndrome as anything else. Infer from that what you like.

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        • , They are doing the same thing in Louisiana. When Jindal took office the state had a half a billion surplus but with all the tax breaks and giveaways to the corps the state is facing a huge deficit this year. Jindal has privatized lots of stuff and closed hospitals and still can’t find the money. Baton Rouge is down to one emergency room so if you get hurt in north BR you are sol and surprise, surprise, surprise that is where the African Americans are concentrated. They are talking about a 60% cut to LSU and shutting down Southern completely. There has even been talk about selling the rights to the power ball. It is a real mess and to top things off they are pushing a freedom of religion bill this session that is even more strident than Indiana’s.
          Jindal’s term is almost over and I can’t be too happy because we will probably get David (AKA diaper boy) Vitter as our next governor.

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            • When Jindal took office the unemployment rate in La. was a little over 4% and today when the rest of the nation is a little better off ours is almost 7%.
              The reason for the deficit is partly the fault of oil prices, but a great deal of it goes back to Jindal’s tax breaks for the corps and other people I wouldn’t give money to.

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  8. I can understand and accept that some people are poor because of choices they’ve made or that many/most poor people are poor in part because of their choices. But as Megan McArdle also once pointed out, it’s not always easy to tease out the choices one makes and the life situations in which one finds oneself. And sometimes what in the big picture seems like poor choices, or worse, a lack of “virtue,” is arguably a set of rational decisions based on the circumstances.

    My real concern, however, is similar to ‘s above. Why focus on the the intangibles when the more tangible and easier to identify? I’ll add to what he said and suggest that it’s so much easier to get it wrong when you (the generic you) try to teach or channel moral behavior than when trying to provide material assistance.

    It’s not only a question of fairness or equality (although I do wonder when people will be required to pass a drug test to claim a mortgage interest deduction on their taxes). It’s also a question of what incentives one creates. If we want to encourage any given “virtue”–thrift, delayed gratification, chastity, work ethic, temperance–we really have to 1) agree on what we mean by “thrift, etc”; 2) agree it’s worth the public expense to encourage it; 3) find out what incentives will encourage it with the minimum of perverse/unintended consequences; 4) be honest and forthright about, and acknowledge, what perverse/unintended consequences the policy creates.

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  9. In a noble effort to rehabilitate and rescue the character and humanity of the historically stigmatized, historians have opted to gloss over and deny the significance of more intangible factors in shaping history. In this conception, the individual is helpless in the face of structural inequalities; the injustice of their systems sealed their fates. Intangible factors–things that we once would have labeled “virtues”–have no place in these narratives, because they cannot be detected by our analysis.

    While much of the current historical project is about assigning or attributing agency to the afflicted and the lower classes, this seems to end at the ability to rescue oneself from one’s circumstances. In the academy, agency is all about resisting the structures of oppression, not about opportunities for individual improvement.

    I think it’s worth asking what evidence could be used to support a “virtues” analysis in historical work or to investigate “opportunities for individual improvement.” Because “virtue” is so intangible and relates so much to one’s inner life, it would be difficult really to discern and examine. “Difficult” doesn’t mean “impossible” and it doesn’t mean “it’s not worthwhile,” but it could mean that any historical analysis might have to adopt certain proxies for “virtue.” If you’re inclined to demographic or economic history, maybe that could be something like statistics on out of wedlock births and the economic consequences thereof, or rates of alcohol consumption, or per capita savings rates, or the success of local financial institutions.

    If you’re inclined to cultural/social history, you might study “discourses” around “virtues.” And the ideologically driven preference for “agency” as resistance to oppression often does this already, with the “virtue” being the resistance or, in labor history, the “virtue” being action on behalf of the working class and refusal to be a replacement worker. Or you could look at grass-roots efforts to devise and enforce standards of virtue.

    Those are just a couple examples (and I don’t really touch on political history or many other kinds of history). My point in saying all this, though, is that it would be hard to do. Again, not “impossible” and not “un-worthwhile,” just hard.

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    • I think this is an interesting point. One thing I’ve noticed about the “discourses” studies is that pieces that focus on discourse of virtue tend to be interpreted as just the means through which the privileged oppressed the elite. (I’ve seen this most clearly in books on medicine and imperialism.) I do find these arguments persuasive, actually, quite so. (Warwick Anderson’s Colonial Pathologies is very good on this.) But I don’t think that the idea of societal virtues is thus “problematized” for all time.

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  10. First of all, your McArdle example is use in such a way to conflate all people who get welfare with criminals/drug users. Did you really intend to do that? Do you have other examples?

    Here in ME, we’re starting to drug test people who’ve been convicted of drug felonies before they can receive welfare; and there’s a lot of pressure to test everyone. I get why people want to do this; but I suspect we’re going to end up paying out a lot more in drug testing then we’ll give out in welfare benefits to welfare. There’s some element of catching cheats here, yes. But as importantly, is an attitude to make applying for welfare as humiliating as possible. (This has long been a built-in problem with asking for help from the government, and one of the reasons many people who need help don’t ask for it.) There’s a place where that’s not moral policy, it’s shaming policy. I will always suggest it’s important to consider the other option — accept there’s this level of the population that’s going to cheat, try to eliminate some, and accept that it’s cheaper to deal with the cheating then it is to try to catch it all. (The IRS seems to work in this way.)

    Having worked in government designing and maintaining computers systems for welfare programs, they are purposely meant to be humiliating. If we had to go through similar things to take advantage of the home-mortgage deduction, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular.

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    • Absolutely fair point, zic; the welfare/drug conflation wasn’t intentional, but was just the best example of paternalism I could think of in a government aid program.

      I think work requirements for welfare in general are a more general example, though not quite as paternalistic.

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      • the welfare/drug conflation wasn’t intentional,

        I believe that; but I also see that it’s a common conflation, and the opposing force to writers bend over backwards to avoid assigning blame onto poor people themselves for their station in life.

        There are a lot more voters then writers.

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    • Here in Canada I have gotten the impression that it frequently takes considerable effort on the part of a social worker for someone to get on social assistance, and weeks of delays.

      For this reason, people are sometimes (quite rationally) reluctant to take up employment opportunities lest the employer decide after a few days they’re not a good fit and send them away. After fighting for weeks to get on assistance, they might gain only two or three days’ wage and lose a month’s assistance payments or more. For all that the social assistance machine is slow and creaky to start up, it can stop on a dime…

      When the program that’s supposed to be there to help people in their hour of direst need, requires the intervention of an expert in the navigation of perverse bureaucracies to actually help people, something is very wrong.

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    • I simple don’t see the point of grouping together into a society if we are just going to let each other starve of go without medical treatment so that an incredibly small number of us can have huge yachts.

      I don’t want to live in that world. I want our huge output of goods and services to be distributed in such a way that all people can live decently. It is ok with me if an incredibly small number of us have huge yachts after that is done.

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  11. Besides SNAP by itself (it frequently accompanies other programs, like TANF), are there any federal or major state programs that don’t already have strings attached?

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    • minimal strings – EITC (you just have to file), Medicaid (you just have to file and meet the income/asset eligibility requirements), SS & Medicare (you just have to have paid into the system for some length of time, and be old), public schools (you just have to be a kid), roads (you need to have a license and register your car), public transit (you just need to be at the right place at the right time) ORCA LIFT (you just need to be at the right place at the right time and meet income/asset requirements)

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      • Aren’t there also strings on the providers of many of these services? Non-profits have strings; transportation authorities have strings. Public schools have strings.

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      • Hmm… each of those has some pretty specific eligibility requirements, perhaps not strings, though they’re highly specific. Some involve returning money (EITC, SS, Medicare) that you’ve already paid in, rather than just giving people money. Public schools have a whole host of requirements, from residency to attendance and so on, but I’m not sure thinking of the kids as the recipients makes sense in this context. Public transportation, perhaps like public schools, is in a different category of service.

        So I will rephrase my question: Besides SNAP, are there any “welfare” programs, as they’ve traditionally been called, that don’t have strings attached? UI benefits require looking for (and taking) work, and even specify the minimum amount of money you have to be willing to make. TANF requires work and/or training. Most child care programs similarly require work. TAA? Various other job programs? I’m pretty sure they require some level of participation as well. SNAP may be the only one that doesn’t have program-specific strings, and it’d be difficult to come up with a set of them since a large number of its recipients work full time already.

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        • CHP+? WIC? LIHEAP? For all of those, the hurdle is meeting the qualifications. WIC is only good for a particular list of food items — is that a string? LIHEAP is a block grant so not everyone who applies will receive assistance. In my state, LIHEAP recipients don’t ever see the cash — everything is arranged through the utility, who discounts the bill by the amount of assistance the state is providing, and at the end of each quarter the state writes one big check to the utility.

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  12. Implementing strings comes at a cost. Take the various restrictions that assorted legislatures wish to impose on SNAP (formerly food stamps) recipients, since that’s what the state legislator in this post was concerned about. With my former budget staff hat on, I can imagine the sorts of things I’d be including in the fiscal note. The bill introduces a new category of fraud. Will the new rule be enforced? If it will be enforced, by what mechanism? The only reliable one will be to have grocers refuse EBT payments for select food items. When will the state provide the list of items? Will the state reimburse grocers for additional training of personnel? For the costs of programming the computers for stores where the goods are scanned and the payment is handled by the computers?

    I don’t know other states. In my state, the appropriations committees had a pronounced tendency to kill bills that did either of (a) imposing additional costs on merchants or (b) put rules in place that weren’t going to be enforced.

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  13. “But we have a responsibility to keep the idea of building virtue in mind when crafting legislation, and specifically anti-poverty legislation.”

    Why? And which virtues?

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    • Here’s my rule of thumb: Anytime any one says that *other people* do not have ‘virtue’, the person saying that is an asshole.

      If those other people had real moral failings, those moral failings would be pointed out, and called ‘moral failures’ or ‘ethical problems’. The words ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ actually mean something that can be identified, and thus listeners could look at specific actions and decided if they were or were not those things. And, more importantly, if the people pointing out those things have the same or worse problems.

      Of course, at this point in history, we’ve pretty much all learned that the wealth have many, many, many more moral failings than the poor, if only because they can afford them. (And their name was The Aristocrats!) When the poor have the slightest fraction of moral failures allowed in the rich, they end up in prison.

      We realized this a long time ago. So, by the 18th century, the condemners of the poor had moved on to talking about ‘virtue’ instead of morals. The word ‘virtue’ isn’t so clearly defined, and hence it’s only used when people want to suggest ethical problems *without actually pointing at said problems*, almost always because those problems are complete bullshit.

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      • Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t, in some way, attempt to direct the law to achieve moral goals. But it’s not some crazy coincidence that the word ‘virtue’ seems to only show up when talking about the poor.

        It’s also an interesting fact that the major ‘virtue’ we supposedly care about the poor having is entirely a lie. Saving money is not any sort of virtue. It doesn’t help poor people whatsoever, because people who do not spend money are, in fact, still poor. What is the plan, be slightly poorer 11 months a year and richer one month? Live your lives poorer, stop being poor at 50 when enough money is saved? Likewise, a fundamental truth of poverty is that many things are more expensive for the poor, so not spending money can cost *even more* in the long run. Hell, this ‘virtue’ doesn’t even help *society*.

        If every poor person saved an extra $5 a week, at the end of the year they’d have $260 dollars…and slightly less of something they wanted. But now they can buy a new TV…except they *can’t*, under this logic, because that’s wasting money. What, exactly, is the end goal here? Having a bunch of money they can’t use? When does this let them stop being poor?

        I am not objecting to having savings, in fact, such things might stop poor people from slipping *deeper* into poverty, and is generally a good thing. But savings won’t get people out, and lack of savings *probably* didn’t get people in.

        In fact, the only actual reason we appear to condemn the poor for not saving money is that the poor saving money is really hard, so very few of them do it…thus giving us an easy thing to condemn the poor for.

        Laws should attempt to reach moral goals, via moral methods. Laws should, themselves, be moral. And it’s possibly there is space for them to teach people in general *to* be moral.

        There is no space for the laws to teach people, especially not ‘certain people’, to be ‘virtuous’, because ‘lack of virtue’ is often just code for ‘I’m going to complain about those people without any real justifiable complaints that would stand up to logic’, and even when it’s not, it really just means ‘I don’t like what they’re doing but it doesn’t actually reach any level of moral failure.’.

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    • The “Why?” question is (as usual) very interesting.

      My suspicion is that most of the portion of society not on welfare assumes that the goal of welfare is to take the person who needs charity and help them flourish (and that’s usually defined as “become as self-reliant as is necessary to no longer require welfare”).

      If that’s not the goal, what *IS* the goal?

      If that is the goal, then, I suspect, that that is the answer to “why?”

      As for “which virtues”, I assume the virtues of the people self-reliant to the point where they do not require welfare.

      (And now I brace myself for an explanation of how public schools, roads, and legislation about the amount of lead in gasoline are nothing more than different forms of welfare.)

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  14. It seems to me that the problem with the bills in KS and MO, and wherever else such laws are being passed, is that of collective punishment. The entire cohort of people receiving whatever kind of assistance is seen as somehow cheating the government out of money that I, the working, taxpaying citizen, paid to it.

    In fact, the percentage of fraud perpetrated by recipients of poverty relief is so miniscule that it’s just a rounding error in government budgets. See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/just-how-wrong-is-conventional-wisdom-about-government-fraud/278690/

    Here’s a quote from MO state rep. Rick Brattin’s website, “He stands firm on conservative values and faith and will never waiver on these principles.” Wonder what he thinks when his minister reads this in church on Sunday:

    Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

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    • I suspect that for many who are both religious and call for sharp restrictions on anti-poverty programs the most important part of your quote is the first: “Now the whole group of those who believed…”

      This is why many want “charity” (anti-poverty work) to come from religious organizations only. How better to insure that the money is spent on those who are virtuous (fellow believers) rather than the sinful majority? And I won’t deny an often powerfully demonstrated desire and ability to help on the part of many religious institutions. The LDS church was incredibly giving and helpful to a person I knew who was both very poor and disabled. But of course that help was predicated on her being Mormon. She later revealed to me that she joined the church for companionship and material aid, she remained a Baptist in her heart. I guess welfare fraud is unavoidable…

      (I’m not arguing that a desire to help only the virtuous or in-group members is the only reason to think that all anti-poverty work should be private, of course. Only that it’s one rationale.)

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  15. I think part of the problem for those arguing for the usefulness of “strings” attached to anti-poverty benefits is that we don’t seem to have a lot of evidence to support it, other than anecdotal. “Strings”, or more properly, consequences, in rehabilitation programs do have empirical support, but poverty is neither an illness nor a crime.

    I’d be interested in seeing some comprehensive cost/benefit analyses of proposed paternalistic measures. And I’d like to see included in the analyses not just costs to the state, but also the impact on the lives of those living in poverty.

    Many of the proposed and implemented paternalistic measures seem rooted in either animus or indifference toward the poor without any real sense of what it’s like to live life in poverty. Having assisted poor elderly adults apply for medicaid (the “deserving poor” in many people’s eyes), I can assure you the system is incredibly difficult to navigate and seems designed to deny any level of dignity to those in need. Is stripping people of a sense of self-worth helpful in encouraging virtue?

    In fact, the systems in place to determine eligibility and to manage use of benefits often seem designed to keep people poor. Charging people in poverty for a drug test to prove “virtuousness” before they are eligible for benefits (Georgia)? Limiting TANF ATM withdrawals to $25 a day (Kansas’s proposal)? In the latter case, that means additional fees and time, energy, and potentially money spent getting to an ATM on a regular basis. Given how a minor cash flow issue can become a spiraling ride to destitution for the poor, this is either mean-spirited or staggeringly ignorant of what the lives of the poor are like.

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    • I think part of the problem for those arguing for the usefulness of “strings” attached to anti-poverty benefits is that we don’t seem to have a lot of evidence to support it, other than anecdotal.

      My suspicion is that those strings are the reason the legislation was able to pass in the first place.

      The strings are attached to the benefit and that allows the benefit at all. This makes the strings quite useful indeed.

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      • But often the strings are attached later. Georgia had anti-poverty programs before passing the mandatory self-pay drug test law for applicants. Kansas had TANF before legislators decided that recipients were living too lavishly.

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        • Huh, I was thinking of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 which, according to Wikipedia, “The eligibility for purchase with food stamps of all items intended for human consumption except alcoholic beverages and imported foods (the House version would have prohibited the purchase of soft drinks, luxury foods, and luxury frozen foods)”.

          While I’m sure we agree that it might be silly to ban imported foods (you can’t get the good soy sauce!) we probably understand that, yeah, one of the things the legislation was intended to do was help American farmers as well and you can do that by making people buy American corn instead of Canadian.

          But you and I probably look at the prohibition on alcohol and don’t even blink.

          Right?

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          • I certainly agree about Food Stamps being partly a farm program (and that it was sited within the Dept. of Agriculture cements that).

            Honestly, I find I like other approaches to poverty amelioration better than very constraining programs like food stamps. I’d be more in favor of a negative income tax and subsidized savings programs that provide more options for recipients. (The financial support for reducing the day-to-day burden of poverty and the subsidized savings to help provide both a cushion for economic shock and a leg up for long-term improved financial status.) The negative income tax is one of those issues that lefties and followers of Milton Friedman can come together usefully, I think.

            Subsidized savings accounts might be an example of a somewhat paternalistic approach that could be useful. (Michael Sherraden addresses these in “Assets for the Poor”.) But the approach would have to be non-punitive to work.

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              • That depends on what you mean by “reduce long term inequality”. If a negative income tax were permanent and indexed, all else being equal, by definition it would reduce long term income inequality. There would be a floor of income for the poorest of the poor.

                However, poverty ain’t just about income. Assets are a major factor in escaping and staying out of poverty, and a negative income tax by itself doesn’t necessarily help with asset accumulation. That’s why I would support some kind of subsidized or matched savings program.

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              • By the way, one of the things I like about both the negative income tax and subsidized savings programs is that they can be essentially universal.

                Everyone files their taxes. Some people pay in, some people pay nothing, some people get money back–all based on income, family size, etc. (Yes, the devil’s in the details, I know.)

                Everyone could be eligible for matched savings just like everyone’s eligible for social security and medicare (yes, I know that both of the latter require 40 quarters of paying into the system, but that’s pretty close).

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                • I guess I should point out here that we already have subsidized savings programs (for retirement) in the US in the form of 401k, 403b, IRA, etc. But these programs are constructed in such a way that they are much harder to take advantage of (or downright impossible) if you are poor.

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                • I don’t foresee how the allotment wouldn’t end up in a usury system. Current average household credit card debt is approx. $15,000.

                  Even the savings account would eventually be leveraged yes?

                  The poor don’t need a floor. They are in a hole that other people continue to stack dirt around.

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                  • One thought is that if people had additional income as well as assets they could draw upon when necessary, they would not have to be as reliant on predatory lending schemes.

                    And of course we could address predatory lending as well. Adopting anti-poverty measures doesn’t preclude addressing other things that make poverty such a trap.

                    I’d like to see a rollback in some of the stringent standards for consumer bankruptcy filings (such as passed in 2005). If lenders don’t want to have so many defaults on credit card debt, they could opt to offer credit more carefully, rather than relying on the state to help them out of their financial mistakes. Isn’t the market supposed to clear these sorts of problems? Let it work, then.

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                    • Capitalism in it’s current form is not designed to fix these problems. Free markets could fix it, but those don’t exist in any relevant mass form. Assets currently represent something that can be seized and sold by many legal means via many predatory agents.

                      IMO the better option is to fix capitalism of usury and rent seeking. Then harden property rights for the lower classes.

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                        • agreed, and that is why like Road Scholar above, I think we need systemic solutions.

                          I don’t know if Georgism would be any better. I like the thought of a Colin Ward type movement, but it doesn’t have the strength in the base to enact enough change or momentum. Just enough to allow capitalism to limp along in its deformedness.

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                  • A big part of the success of predatory lending is because the poor have inconsistent incomes. It’s hard to budget & plan when your hours can get cut unexpectedly. Right now the poor don’t even have a floor, they have a wobbly platform that likes to spill them into the hole. A floor near the top of the hole would be a considerable step up.

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              • A negative income tax, ideally, would reduce the stress of basic survival. You get $X, no strings, no questions (where $X is a computed amount that should provide for basic food, shelter, clothing, etc. in your location).

                If you don’t have to worry about how you will pay the rent or afford food, perhaps you can focus on doing something to get ahead (like education/training, or finding a better paying job, etc.). Or you can just live on that & do as you will.

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            • I have no idea what a “luxury food” would be. Probably caviar.

              But it would have to be domestic caviar.

              Which hardly seems like a luxury at all.

              aaaaand googling doesn’t help.

              I don’t know if “luxury” is defined so broadly as to include munchy snack foods (the luxury of Funyuns) or narrowly to keep people from buying lobster tails or foie gras (domestic, of course).

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  16. There should be some sort of strings is a reasonable enough assumption perhaps but here are my reservations.

    1. There is a difference between attaching a string to welfare and punishing people for being poor, unemployed, unlucky, or any combination of the above. I often find that a lot of the strings attached to welfare come in the punitive category rather than the minor nudge and improvement category. This has been true since the Victorians if not before. The early Victorians had their versions and false horror stories of welfare queens and kings as well.

    2. Outliers should not be used as prime examples for the system as a whole. There is a Jewish tradition that once you give money or something to charity, it is no longer yours and you do not have a right to be shocked or agahst at its use. The story version of this is the rich banker is gives money to a beggar for food and the beggar buys bagels and lox instead of dark bread. The beggar retorts “When should I buy bagels?” in the story. The lesson learned here is that even the poor have a right to some creature comforts and luxuries.

    3. Children should not be punished for what is happening to their parents or the inadequacies of their parents. No one chooses the circumstances of their birth.

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    • “The lesson learned here is that even the poor have a right to some creature comforts and luxuries.”

      I’m not sure that everyone agrees with this. And sometimes, the lack of agreement comes from a lack of empathy. (Not an inability to be empathic, but a lack of understanding of what the lives of the poor can be.)

      I once took part in a graduate level class on Social Welfare. Students were asked to come up with “poverty” budgets for a 4-person, single head of household family (a working parent and three children aged 12, 6, and 10 months).

      The students in the class were all prospective social workers and therefore probably more inclined to generosity to the poor than were they not. But they were also mostly young with little life or practice experience.

      I was shocked at the proposals. One group came up with a monthly phone call to the parent’s family as the entire entertainment budget for the adult. Another group found savings in the form of having the 12-year-old provide all childcare during the summer so that daycare wasn’t needed. (Yes, I know that would not have been unusual in the past, but today such a practice will trigger a child neglect investigation if discovered (and is explicitly illegal in some states).) Several of the groups budgeted a single gift for each child’s birthday annually and hoped for charity at Christmas for the children’s entertainment. None of the groups had any budgetary cushion for any kind of emergency financial problem.

      While all the groups got a sense of just how expensive it was to raise a family, I think few of them had any sense how difficult (and grindingly awful) it would be to live under the constraints they’d set up.

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      • WOW! I would have loved to have been in that class (as someone who grew up poor).

        Honestly, the biggest complaint I could have of my parents growing up is that they spent more money on cigarettes & pot than they should have (well, cigarettes at least, pot can be grown at home). Although the pot was a constant stressor for me, always afraid my parents would get busted and I’d be sent into foster care. Big reason I oppose the drug war.

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    • 2. A variant of this story is that a rich man once visited a Rabbi. The Rabbi inquired what the rich man ate and the rich man replied he lived on diet of course bread and salt. At this point the Rabbi said that such a diet would not do for a man of his station and that he needs finer foods like meat, white bread, and other delicacies. When the rich man left, the Rabbi’s students inquired why did the Rabbi say the rich man needs a finer diet. The Rabbi replied that so he would not think that the poor could live as he does.

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      • 1. Coarse bread, not course bread.

        2. The other story I know is about a rich baker who complained about poor children who would hang out under his shop to smell the freshly baked bread. The baker takes the children to the rabbinical court and the rabbi hears his story and then asks the audience for money. The audience thinks the rabbi is asking for money so the children can have food and they give. The rabbi takes the money, puts it in a bag and shakes the bag. He then tells the Baker that “because the children only wanted to smell food, you only deserve the sound of money.”

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  17. There’s a pretty good overall discussion going on up thread, so I won’t address any of that at the moment, but I have a couple of points.

    Point The First:

    But the broader argument seems to come from the current academic perspective on poverty: its causes are socioeconomic, so its solutions must be socioeconomic. The idea that there are other factors that could better the condition of the poor–ones that do not show up in the history or the literature because they are intangible–is simply not discussed. But this view is unnecessarily narrow. In something as complex and multicausal as poverty, it is conceivable that by limiting the scope of our analysis, we are missing texture and key factors behind such phenomena.

    I don’t necessarily have an argument with this.

    Indeed, we cannot go to the archives or the datasets for that extra texture; we must go mainly to philosophy and passed-down wisdom.

    And there you lost me. This is a pretty big assertion.

    There is no regression analysis that will tell us that Aristotelian virtues like temperance and prudence are good foundations for a society that should cut through all of our legislation; we are only guessing. But we are guessing with millennia of lived experience on our side.

    This is, in a nutshell, the problem I have with movement conservatives (the problem I have with movement liberals is a problem for another day).

    The conservative tendency is to assert these things are true, or that they are self-evident, or that they come from a millennia of lived experience as exhibited here.

    All of which are dicey, at best, and quite possibly terrible.

    The admittedly most facile first response is, “So what? Almost nothing about our current empirical existence even remotely resembles our existence a hundred years ago. In what way is our collective wisdom even likely to be considered relevant?”

    Or the snarky version, “please show your work a bit here”.

    The second one is far more troubling (to me), “Aren’t you presupposing quite a bit in assuming that you can’t go to datasets for that texture, and doesn’t that presupposition – if true – throw a pretty big monkey wrench in here?”

    Let’s assume you’re correct, and we cannot meaningfully extract data regarding these virtues. If we cannot expose a behavior to observation, then there’s no way for us to measure it. That applies for good and for ill.

    I mean, if it is true that some form of Aristotelian virtues are actually informative in helping us craft our policy for socially desirable outcomes but we have no way of measuring Aristotelian virtues then doesn’t it become pretty much a given that any attempt to induce Aristotelian virtue will be immeasurable and thus just as likely to fail as to succeed, or perhaps even worse, encourage Aristotelian vice, or worse, become a matter of institutionalized encouragement of vice?

    Point the Second (the Big One):

    Okay, even discarding the above argument, we have another problem, and it is actually a bigger one.

    When we’re talking about complex systems in general, we have a cost and a benefit.

    When we start attributing audit costs to attempting overly precise benefits, we start increasing the overall cost of the system (sometimes by a large factor) to gain successively smaller margins of benefit. Anyone who has designed an audit system understands the underlying principle here.

    You want to produce an outcome. The more detailed you make your outcome, the more testing you need to do on the end product to ensure it conforms to the design. The testing process itself will be necessarily flawed, and you will occasionally tag end products as nonconforming even when they are, and you will further occasionally tag end products as nonconforming even when they are not.

    The false positive and false negative results in an audit policy can make even the simplest audit economically not feasible.

    Like Bruce Schneier likes to say, “Security is a tax on the honest”. Well, audit is worse, it’s a tax on a tax on the honest.

    If you have 10 people on welfare and the probability that any one of them will spend welfare funds “poorly” is .2, you have probably 8 folks who will spend the money on bread and milk and 2 who will spend the funds on cigarettes and beer.

    If you craft an audit policy that has a .9 probability of interdicting beer and cigarettes and a .9 probability of accuracy, you will *probably* catch one person on welfare that spends their money on milk and bread as “possibly buying beer and cigarettes” and you are likely to catch both of the beer and cigarettes folks.

    Well, we caught both of the beer and cigarettes folks, which is good… but we incorrectly tagged a milk and bread person, who now needs to clear themselves in order to get back on the system and get their milk and bread.

    So we helped 7 people outright, we caught two scofflaws who may or may not change their behavior, and we hindered 1 person we were trying to help.

    Now multiply that 10 by a million.

    Now we have 10,000,000 folks on welfare that we’re trying to help. Our system helped 7 million outright. It caught 900,000 scofflaws, and 100,000 scofflaws are still getting to use the system but they’re getting beer and cigarettes. We tagged a million people as abusers of the system, and they now need to prove that they’re not getting beer and cigarettes in order to get the help that they need… and remember they’re legitimate users of the system!

    If our *verification* of the false positives is 90% accurate, then we wind up with:

    7,000,000 people helped outright
    900,000 folks with a beer and cigarette habit who may or may not change their behavior
    100,000 folks with a beer and cigarette habit who get away with abusing the system
    1,000,000 folks who have a red tape nightmare to continue to get benefits
    and of those
    900,000 get their benefits back after the first pass and
    100,000 folks *still* get tagged as abusers of the system.

    You can tweak the numbers, and you can massage the policies, but you have to remember that the false positive and false negative results apply at *each step* of *each successive attempt* to “prove” that the system is helping only those folks that it is supposed to help, and each false positive is someone who by definition is living right on the margins going a month, or more, without benefits that they really, really need.

    Since most folks using any system are honest, audit is almost *never* economically efficient to begin with. Generally speaking, as a security countermeasure in an attempt to make a system less likely to be exploited, you need (indeed, you *want*) ONLY enough audit processing to catch the most egregious offenders.

    Now…

    Almost every “nanny state” attempt to prevent moral hazard with welfare benefits is actually introduced as a *blanket* audit process, rather than a minimal one, and by its nature it targets non-egregious offenses, in comparison to, say, tax fraud or rent-seeking or any one of a number of other egregious violations of taxpayer money.

    To draw an analogy as to how stupid this is, imagine trying to secure financial transactions and deciding that the correct way to do this is to spend all of our money making absolutely sure that everyone who uses an ATM and draws out $20 OR LESS is absolutely the correct person. Chip and pin. Biometrics. Complex passwords. DNA testing. And at the same time, anybody who draws out $100,000 OR MORE is automatically assumed to be the correct person absent all of those protections.

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  18. The other problem with attempting to interdict “bad” spending of public assistance money is that it is so trivial to work around these problems.

    Alice and Bob live in assisted housing. Alice and Bob both get welfare assistance. Since welfare assistance is by definition applying to folks on the margin, the discount rate for Alice is probably negative rather than positive when it comes to each additional dollar of assistance, because she’s already below the rate of income where she’s spending money on luxuries.

    So Alice already doesn’t get enough money for milk and bread. But Bob doesn’t care about milk and bread, he wants cigarettes and beer. So Bob goes to the store, grabs two gallons of milk and a loaf of bread on his EBT card, and he walks over to Alice’s apartment and offers her two gallons of milk and a loaf of bread for $6. Alice scrapes up the cash, because Bob is still offering her something she needs at a pretty steep discount, and Bob turns around and walks back to the convenience store and grabs a pack of smokes.

    So Bob still gets his smokes, anyway.

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      • Bob can’t spend his EBT on cigarettes or beer, but he doesn’t want milk or bread.

        He has an EBT card, but it doesn’t get him what he wants. So he uses it to buy something someone else wants, and trades for what he wants.

        This is actually economically inefficient on a number of different levels.

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  19. Jaybird: Well, what is the goal (or, more accurately, what are the goals) of charity?

    I’d say the goal is to help people (and the people’s planet, too!) live long and prosper. It’s a nice place we got here.

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  20. “But the broader argument seems to come from the current academic perspective on poverty: its causes are socioeconomic, so its solutions must be socioeconomic.”

    I don’t know if that’s right. At least insofar as the reasoning. I’d venture to guess that there is an emphasis on socioeconomic solutions not because they are the only cause and potential solution, but because they (at least appear to be) the only sorts of things that we can influence for folks already in poverty. Or, perhaps better said, they are the easiest and most effective (short term) solutions.

    Are some people poor because they’re lazy? Or make bad decisions? Or selfish? Surely. But how does the government help the 25-year-old lazy dude or 35-year-old woman who makes poor decision be better at either of those things? I’m hard pressed to think it can. MAYBE we can make it harder for them to indulge in such flaws, but that doesn’t actually help them address the flaws.

    When I look at those folks, I want them (and, more importantly, any children or dependents) to have food on their table and roofs over their head because collectively we are better off when people have those things than when they don’t. And their children should certainly not be made to suffer the sins of their parents.

    So, I’m not all that interested in the virtues of those people. At least insofar as governmental solutions. Rather, I want to know how we prevent them from even getting to that stage in life. How do we help folks grow into adults who are responsible and exercise sound judgement and have a good work ethic? I look to our education system and say that IF we want to teach/instill virtues, we start there.

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    • “But the broader argument seems to come from the current academic perspective on poverty: its causes are socioeconomic, so its solutions must be socioeconomic.”

      I don’t know if that’s right.

      Well, unless you move in the direction of the “poverty gene” (which I’m sure will make the front page of Time Magazine within the next decade), you’re pretty much stuck with socio-economic causes of poverty.

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      • Let’s make a list!

        1) Free daycare for everybody (quality depending on how many taxes they pay)
        2) College prep for people in the best part of town
        3) Train people to change tasks every 50 minutes and take a 10 minute break in the blue collar part of town
        4) Create a permanent underclass that is unable to compete with the taxpayers but votes in a bloc in the last part of town

        Is there a fifth?

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        • 5) Teach a set of skills to fit into layers of someone else’s means of production instead of something they would finding directly motivating?

          just spit balling in the dark here.

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              • The problem is that there are only so many people who are able to be interested in stuff like “supply chain management” or “accounting” or, yes, “system administration and security monitoring”.

                You may be able to find people who are *GOOD* at such things, but interest? The way that they’d be interested in, say, painting?

                I’m grasping for a point that isn’t just “that’s why they call it work”.

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            • that’s really offensive.

              To be a good artists, you have to make art; even if nobody buys it. It’s a process, and there are no great artists who haven’t gone through it.

              Show some respect, because you obviously appreciate the results of this work; it’s on display in every video game you love.

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              • But if you’re doing it out of love and you still haven’t reached the point where you can support so much as “paying for art supplies” by selling your paintings (or, I suppose, by having a patron), then you’re stuck with “getting a day job”.

                Would that we lived in a post-scarcity society where this were not so… but that’s the way the world is.

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                • Maybe doing the art (or music) for a video game is your day job.

                  The point is that most artists cannot hope to live on making art until they’ve put in a lot of time, often working day jobs. Many won’t make it into an economically-viable livelihood. Some will. Some will see that happen after their lifetimes, sometimes for their heirs.

                  I could speak as sarcastically about people who start small businesses, most of which fail within the first two years, and never provide a livelihood; but I respect people for trying. Artists mostly have to try for many more years, and a lot of art gets used and appreciated and never earns much anything for the creator; their return is disproportionately small compared the the joy they bring.

                  So I just find the whole starving artist meme horrifically condescending to people who are creative, hardworking, and willing to commit a lot of time and effort into gaining mastery. Like I said, I think it’s offensive and mean spirited.

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                  • If we want to define a job (just for the sake of argument) as “something that you do that someone else gives you money to do”, then an artist who is making art that no one else buys is probably a lot more easily compared to a guy who opens a small business that nobody frequents (hey, at least s/he’s her/his own boss!) than just another person with a job.

                    But if we’re discussing situations where people with jobs wish that they had jobs that they find directly motivating, then (depending on the various barriers to entry for the job) we’re going to be talking about jobs that are likely to pay less than otherwise.

                    A job that is its own reward doesn’t *NEED* to pay as much as a job that sucks. It’ll have a lot more applicants. The person paying these people will be able to sort through the resumes and cherry pick the ones who went to college over the ones who didn’t (or look for whatever keywords he or she wishes to look for given the stack of applicants).

                    Sure, once you get up to stuff like “certified medical assistant”, the dynamics will have changed… but, by that point, are we discussing the lion’s share of people looking for personal and direct motivation? It doesn’t seem to me that we are.

                    Would that the world were not this way, of course… but it is.

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              • ACIS,

                Jaybird answered the question “why do we educate people?” with a list of reasons. It may be cynical, or trivial, or (as Jaybird said) wrong, but it isn’t a strawman since he’s not attributing silly views to people which aren’t based on what they’ve said.

                Personally, I don’t agree with Jaybird on this. At all. If it were me, I’d throw in some overt social engineering aspects to education as well as culturally reinforced status-seeking behavior. And lastly, finally, at the end, to train “the best and the brightest” and so on.

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  21. Stillwater,

    Can’t we look at other things? Suppose someone grew up in an environment full of despair and absent hope? Couldn’t that contribute to a set of characteristics that would make poverty more likely? Is that environment socioeconomic? I suppose in a way, but the way we tend to use socioeconomic is really just about economics.

    For instance, what toll does systemic racism — does the message that black lives don’t matter — take on young black folks? If you think your life doesn’t matter, that you are devalued by society, there is a good chance you don’t hustle as you might have otherwise. Is that a socioeconomic problem? Yes and no. But we don’t solve that problem with mailbox money. Not long term.

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  22. Joe Sal,

    Dude, that is the question I ask ALL THE TIME! Not sure if you know me, but I’m a teacher and every time someone says, “We need to reform the education system!” I ask “What is the purpose of our education system?” because it seems silly to me to change course when we don’t know the destination.

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    • The question is “what are the purposes of our education system?” because it should be plural.

      An excellent followup question would be “and how many of them are contradictory?”

      A second excellent followup question would be “and how much does it cost to meet each of them?”

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      • Got it.

        I would say that the basic purpose of a public education system is to give people the tools to be productive citizens.

        Of course, you don’t get much vaguer than that!

        But this is a question that is actually starting to get serious consideration in real circles. You wouldn’t believe how many conversations happen about education — on both micro and macro levels — without anyone ever saying, “What is it we are trying to do here?”

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  23. Zane: having the 12-year-old provide all childcare during the summer so that daycare wasn’t needed. (Yes, I know that would not have been unusual in the past, but today such a practice will trigger a child neglect investigation if discovered (and is explicitly illegal in some states).)

    That’s interesting – in my experience, it’s generally accepted that about 12 is the age where a child can babysit other people’s kids (assuming they’re a generally capable and mature kid – plenty of 18 year olds are too immature to care for children).

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    • A 12 year old, depending on the kid, might be just fine in babysitting a 6 year old for a few hours occasionally. But one of the siblings in the assignment was 10 months old. And the group wasn’t proposing babysitting, they were using the 12 year old to provide all daycare while the parent was at a full time job. That’s at least 40 hours a week plus the parent’s commuting time, and would require feeding, diaper-changing, and attending to all health and activities for both younger children.

      And we know that historically in the US, and currently in other places in the world, these would not be seen as unreasonable though perhaps not ideal. However, in most places in the US today, this would warrant a child protection investigation at least. Sanctions would be a likely outcome of such an investigation.

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  24. One of the reasons why conservatives favor private charity over government benefits is that the government has to give the benefits to all that apply and jump through the proper hoops.

    Private charity, on the other hand, can make sure that the benefits go to the “right” type of people.

    This is why conservatives like putting roadblocks up for government benefits for poor people, it acts as a gatekeeper in the fashion that a private charity would.

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