The case for a stronger safety net

Two insightful Eduardo Porter columns for the New York Times. One entitled The myth of welfare’s corrupting influence on the poor. The other entitled The Republican party’s strategy to ignore poverty. Both worth reading.

The first makes the case that the evidence is that safety net programs do not significantly reduce individual’s willingness to work and lead to other undesirable behaviors. Porter writes:

Few ideas are so deeply ingrained in the American popular imagination as the belief that government aid for poor people will just encourage bad behavior. 

The proposition is particularly cherished on the conservative end of the spectrum, articulated with verve by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, who blamed welfare for everything from higher youth unemployment to increases in “illegitimacy.”

… And yet, to a significant degree, it is wrong. Actual experience, from the richest country in the world to some of the poorest places on the planet, suggests that cash assistance can be of enormous help for the poor.

(We explored previously how Minnesota has a far more generous safety net than Michigan and yet far more Minnesotans than Michiganders work.)

The second makes the case that the dominant policy, for at least two decades, to make safety net programs a state responsibility supported by federal block grants has made the lives of the poor worse. This, is the strategy that Paul Ryan has made central to his anti-poverty strategy. Which would block grant almost all of the safety net except Social Security and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Porter writes:

For all the talk about creating opportunity for the poor, and how ill-served they are by the current mix of government programs, it’s hard to view these plans as anything but a bald effort to save money. But don’t just take my word for it.

… Take it instead from Peter Germanis, one of the White House advisers who help write President Ronald Reagan’s welfare reform proposal of 1986, called “Up From Dependency.” … “To the extent that anything I ever wrote contributed to the creation of TANF or any block grant, I am sorry,” he wrote. “As I hope to demonstrate in this paper, a block grant for a safety net program is bad public policy.”

… And it’s not as though there are no more poor people in America. In 2012, one out of five households receiving food stamps reported no other source of income. Millions more scrape by on modest assistance and low-paying jobs.

But by making the poor almost exclusively the responsibility of the states, our national politicians can claim the problem has been solved.

This is what’s most worrying about the block grant strategy to address the bane of poverty: It allows the assistance to wither while poverty survives.

So why has a failed policy not only not been reversed, but continues to be the approach pushed by many policy makers? Porter quotes Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts.” Not smart!

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