Economics, Entitlements

Welfare programs that do more harm than good

Image credit: Erix (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Image credit: Erix (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

In Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Nick Kristof has an important piece that I recommend, discussing how America’s social safety net has become in too many instances a net that entraps people rather than catches them when they fall:

“This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households, only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.

‘One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.’ “

Burkhauser is an adjunct scholar at AEI, and his 2011 AEI Press book “The Declining Work and Welfare of People with Disabilities” with Mary C. Daly is a must-read for anyone interested in the convoluted world of disability policy.

I grew up in a lower middle class family, and some of our neighbors were poor–including some who were on food stamps and other forms of government assistance. We were lucky to avoid that (“lucky” in that my dad supplemented his relatively small salary by driving a bus in the summer and various other jobs). It’s not that my dad was a political conservative–he wasn’t–but he saw how welfare payments changed the dynamics of the families around us. Instead of helping them, it ended up hurting them.

In 1996, thanks to the increasing bipartisan understanding that welfare can hurt families (in no small part due to Charles Murray’s seminal work “Losing Ground“), America reformed welfare in a way that recognized that what people need to be happy is not material handouts, but the opportunity to earn their own success.

As my colleague Nick Eberstadt shows, the growth of the entitlement state has had a deleterious impact on our national character–and fixing disability policy is an important first step in solving the larger problem.

Bravo to Nick Kristof for drawing attention to the problems that our well-intentioned social welfare and entitlement policies have caused. This shouldn’t be a partisan or ideological struggle.

2 thoughts on “Welfare programs that do more harm than good

  1. Kristof said the poor children don’t vote…and targeted “well-off” seniors who do. Pardon me, Mr. Kristof…indeed, you are correct in pointing out how well-intentioned liberal programs defeat America…but, though the children don’t vote, their entitlement parent(s) do. That is one reason Obama got so many votes; people didn’t want their entitlements to be reduced or eliminated, and Obama “Santa Claused” promises of health care coverage by your parents until 26, possible dangling carrot of forgiveness of student loans, extended unemployment benefits, reduced pay into Social Security (6.5% down to 4.5% by workers, further bankrupting Soc Sec), etc.

  2. The larger issue is that government programs are specifically harming social service organizations designed to address the long term causes of poverty. I gave up my job in M&A to work at a local nonprofit because I believed in their mission (they give homeless families everything they need to survive and for their children to thrive — but require that adults in the program work or go to school 40 hours a week and save a portion of their income).

    Now, the federal, state and local government is disqualifying us from funding — specifically because we require people in our program to do something (work or school) designed to improve their income.

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