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January 10, 2005

Comments

Too late for an extended answer, so I'll just state the obvious: time-limited welfare plus serious support for training and childcare, and also a real effort to look at some of the people whose problems seem more intractable, and see how they can be addressed. (Substance abuse: free treatment available without a huge waiting list. Given the effects on crime alone, leaving out families and ruined lives, why we haven't done this a long time ago is a mystery to me. People with mental health problems also need serious help, as do people who are, say, trying to care for a disabled relative. Some of the long-term welfare users just need, as you say, to get off their butts, but others have fairly serious problems which welfare has allowed them to deal with, more or less, but to which there ought to be a different solution. Time-limiting welfare without addressing these problems is not a good idea, imho.)

There have been some good experiments since welfare reform. The American Prospect had a series about them; see here (childcare), here (welfare programs), and here (reducing the bureaucratic nightmare of it all.) And here's the table of contents for the series.

I'm really glad you mentioned the part about people who stay on welfare for a relatively short time. This has always been the great majority of people on welfare. Back when I was a battered women's shelter worker, more or less all the women who came through our shelter got on welfare (battered women who aren't poor tend not to go to shelters.) These were women who had fled with very little -- in some cases, with nothing -- and to whom the ability to get some limited money for a short period of time made all the difference in the world. In some cases, the difference between life and death.

While I comment the intention, I think that the statement, "modern poverty programs are inhabited partially by people who are temporarily stuck in difficult positions and partially by people who really just need to get off their butts," encapsulates a lot of what I find disheartening about Republican discussions of the poor.

First, limiting the discussion to "the poverty level" is perhaps less than helpful. The poverty level is awfully low (IIRC), and there are lots of people just on the other side of it who we'd probably think we should help.

Second, there are probably people who we will never be able to shift into work, and we need to recognize that (despite their lack of merit), there is a level below which we won't let people sink. This isn't an ethical argument that we shouldn't let them sink; I just don't think we have the will to do so. And even if we're willing to let the shiftless die of starvation, their kin won't. And that means that a lot of the people who could be working may have a drag on them that keeps them from achieving what we expect of them.

Third, I think that dividing the poor into (a) the temporary unfortunates, and (b) the lazy (I'm reading into your description) mischaracterizes the situation. I don't mean that the second group isn't "lazy" but is "virtuous" in some way; I just think that the overlay of that sort of ethical framework isn't useful. (It is however, popular). The problem, I suspect, is that our models are crap at any sort of granular prediction of people's potential based on their past.

I don't think we know, with any real depth, why the long-term poor are poor. (I could well be wrong - I'm not a social scientist). Do they lack certain social skills b/c those social skills have never been modeled for them? Are they overly inhibited in interacting with the larger world b/c prior interactions (or those prior ones they've seen) have been hostile, or failures, or rife with humiliations? Are the perceived benefits of working so low, simply as a matter of reasonable statistical predication, that the value of working is minimal? Are there a certain number of screwups per life that we can expect, and the poor simply don't have the resources to absorb and then overcome them? I don't know. But I think a start would be to acknowledge that it might be more than simply getting them to be less shiftless by making being shiftless more painful (not your argument, but one I see a lot of from Pubs).

Free high-quality pre-school education, available to every child in the US from the age of 2 onwards. The long-term benefits of this are proven.

Free high-quality school meals, available to every child from age 2 to 18, would also be beneficial: the negative effects of poor nutrition are also proven.

Other than that, what SomeCallMeTim said.

Second, there are probably people who we will never be able to shift into work, and we need to recognize that (despite their lack of merit), there is a level below which we won't let people sink.

I've been trying to formulate a point, based on the perception of what the government's duty is, that parallels ScmT's point, but haven't been able to google the proper information, so I'll use what I have. I think that the notion that the government must provide for a minimum level for all of its citizens is something was generally accepted in foreign countries, but set up much later for the US and (therefore?) attacked much sooner (Reagan's story of a Welfare
Queen driving a Welfare Cadillac springs to mind). Welfare didn't begin until 1932 in the US, and I believe that these types of schemes were in place in the Australia and the UK at the turn of the century. It is not altogether clear that Americans do actually feel that a minimum standard of living should be guaranteed by the government. On the other hand, I think that this is a general consensus in other countries that one of the duties of government is to provide a minimum standard of living for all citizens (coupled with the assumption that people wouldn't want to be in this situation, so that the social pressure would force them off the rolls), though it is being whittled away. I suspect ScmT's reaction to Jane Galt is predicated on this, if his use of the term 'pubs' is interpreted by me correctly.

Access to capital for poor -- I think it's called micro-capital, in 3rd world countries .

Ditto on the issue of the long-term poor. Our church participates in a mentoring program, and so far it's been fairly frustrating for those involved. They're working with single moms with several children, little or no skills or job experience, and no experience in managing their lives. Even with hours of one-on-one attention every week over the course of a year, the group is seeing little progress towards independence.

Regarding this question: Is it possible to design a program which helps the former and encourages the latter to get to work? Obviously no program will ever be able to take just the right action for every in every case. Whatever system we have in place, the general public needs to understand that some percentage of people will be ill-served by it. All we can do is try to minimize that percentage.

Even with hours of one-on-one attention every week over the course of a year, the group is seeing little progress towards independence.

The cycle of poverty.

I think we can all agree that most of us are where we are (presumably well-adjusted, contributing members of society) because we were raised in an environment that fostered, encouraged, and nurtured our development in a positive way. Note there are exceptions, so I'd prefer not hearing anecdotes.

Pretending that ending assistance to the long-term poor will provide some sort of magic bullet to the problem is , at best, misguided.

If there's one thing that can be done that might help--it's funding the public schools found in these poor areas above and beyond mere adequacy.

"Second, there are probably people who we will never be able to shift into work, and we need to recognize that (despite their lack of merit), there is a level below which we won't let people sink."

I agree, but based on your comment that the poverty level is too low, I suspect that we won't agree on the level. I think that poverty level is too low for those who work and probably about right for those who do not.

"Third, I think that dividing the poor into (a) the temporary unfortunates, and (b) the lazy (I'm reading into your description) mischaracterizes the situation. I don't mean that the second group isn't "lazy" but is "virtuous" in some way; I just think that the overlay of that sort of ethical framework isn't useful."

I think the framework is not only useful, but necessary if we want to be able to design a system that BOTH able to help people in temporary need and able to encourage people not to become permanent wards of the state. I am perfectly willing to admit that there are those who cannot work, but there are also those who will not work. Failing to distinguish between them would provide bad incentives in undesirable social directions.

Hilzoy's point on mental health is interesting. My understanding of the long-term homeless is that almost all of them have serious mental health and/or drug addiction problems. When I studied mental health law in law school, I was struck by the difficult intersection of civil rights laws and mental health needs. In California, for example, it is almost impossible to get some one involuntarily committed unless they are an immediate physical danger to themself or others. This makes treating problems which require even medium level stays almost impossible. There are good reasons for having strict civil rights laws with respect to mental patients because there were many abuses in the 1950s and early 1960s. But the balance has perhaps not been precisely struck (if it is possible to really do so).

So the question is Is it possible to design a program which helps the former and encourages the latter to get to work?. The answer is, of course, yes. It is possible to design such a system.

Will it happen? No, because such a system would be far more expensive than the system we have have now. Actually helping people by providing them with the education, shelter, food, health care and other services they need to get into the work force costs a lot of money. Writing people checks to keep them from living on the street and starving to death, by comparison, is relatively cheap.

I am always highly skeptical of discussions of "welfare reform". The conversation is ostensibly about getting people off welfare and back to work, which is a difficult task. I suspect, however, that the real agenda is simply to get the government to write fewer welfare checks, which is far easier.

"Actually helping people by providing them with the education, shelter, food, health care and other services they need to get into the work force costs a lot of money. Writing people checks to keep them from living on the street and starving to death, by comparison, is relatively cheap."

Ah, but you see that is precisely the problem. We have a system which is much more expensive than merely writing checks to keep people off the street and from starving to death.

SCMTim, above, objected to saying that some of the people on welfare just need to get off their butts. Myself, I do not object to saying this per se: for one thing, I usually assume that in any large group of people, some of them will have almost any trait you care to name, and partly also because I have met at least one such person (it was a while ago, though. He used to work just long enough to qualify for unemployment, and then quit. Ugh.) I only object to the conclusions that are sometimes drawn from this claim.

I assume that for any large program, it will be very difficult to ensure that all and only those for whom it is meant will actually use it. Moreover, ensure this would often take both more resources and (often) more intrusiveness than it's worth. (In the case at hand, we might deploy armies of investigators to follow all welfare recipients around to see whether they were cheating somehow, thereby coming fairly close to ensuring that not a single person who e.g. had an unreported job was getting assistance. Would this be worth it? Not according to me.) For this reason, I also assume that the mere existence of some case in which someone who is getting welfare, but for whom welfare was not intended, proves nothing. The interesting question is not, have we let someone in who really only needs to get off his/her butt? but, have we designed this program in such a way as to strike the right balance between correctly targeting the people we want to help, saving money, avoiding needlessly intrusive or humiliating practices, and whatever else we think matters?

Now: the question I took Sebastian to be asking was: what is the right balance, and how might it be achieved? I think this is exactly the right question. I personally have no interest in subsidizing the hateful person I described above. I have a huge interest in providing battered women, for instance, with enough money to allow them to make a new start; in helping people who have been laid off survive until they get another job without having to go on the street, and so forth. I am also unwilling to toss the genuinely hard cases out to fend for themselves, since what makes them hard cases is precisely an inability to do that, for reasons that are often not their fault. (As noted above, mental illness, caring for a disabled relative or a child, etc.) For this reason I want welfare programs to be as well-designed as possible, both from the point of view of helping people and from the point of view of correctly identifying the people who need help, and if this means that a few extra people get helped, so be it.

But doing welfare reform right involves more money than many conservatives are willing to spend. And it involves spending this money not only on support programs, like childcare, but also on administration. If there are too many "undeserving" people (by which I mean people like my hateful acquaintance) on welfare, where 'too many' means that there's a better-designed program that has less, one obvious reason why is that the program we have is not being administered well. And often, administering a program well costs money. This is money that, in my opinion, we should be willing to spend.

Hilzoy's point on mental health is interesting. My understanding of the long-term homeless is that almost all of them have serious mental health and/or drug addiction problems. When I studied mental health law in law school, I was struck by the difficult intersection of civil rights laws and mental health needs.

My understanding was that it is not the intersection between CR laws and mental health, but the fact that pharmacological progress allowed us to treat many with drugs, so they were deinstitutionalized and funding for mental hospitals was drastically cut. Unfortunately, if people chose not to take medication, they were then unable to cope and often became homeless. I'm sure that assertions of civil rights complicated the issue, but it was driven not by questions of civil rights but by advances in drugs.

Will it happen? No, because such a system would be far more expensive than the system we have have now. Actually helping people by providing them with the education, shelter, food, health care and other services they need to get into the work force costs a lot of money.

Bingo.

When Tommy Thompson cut welfare rolls as Governor of WI using his 'Welfare to Work' program--what was ignored was the program actually cost 25% more than if those folks had stayed on welfare.

Mark A.R. Kleiman has a useful post clarifying some underreported issues.

"I'm sure that assertions of civil rights complicated the issue, but it was driven not by questions of civil rights but by advances in drugs."

I think many of the problems are related to the civil rights idea that we typically won't force people to take such drugs.

Hilzoy is right to think that no program is going to eliminate all cheaters (and certainly not without ridiculous amounts of monitoring). That is why I think it is important to have a limited term on most assistance programs.

As someone who used to work with the mentally ill, I'd say that the issue was and is as much about government looking to slash costs of providing proper care to the mentally ill as it is about civil rights or advances in pharmacology.

During the first wave of "de-institutionalization" in the 1970's, many of the patients at the suburban, state institution, who were to be released, were driven to the city, given a small about of money and let go to fend for themselves. No services or aftercare was provided for these people, many of whom had lived behind the walls of a psychiatric hospital for years.

During the wave of "de-institutionalization" in the late 80's/early 90's that I was actually partially present for, patients were to moved out of institutional settings and into group homes and other residential types of facilities. As you might expect, funding for these facilities didn't materialize at the level required for all the de-intitutionalized patients, but they closed down the hospital anyway.

I believe they're going to knock down all the buildings and turn that very valuable real estate into condominiums.

Years ago Rep. Norm Dicks made gave a speech in Aberdeen, a logging town. In his speech he decried the environmental regulations that were, in his opinion, denying jobs to the high school graduates of Aberdeen. I remember being really pissed at his statement because I teach school in Tacoma and no one feels obligated to use federal resources to create jobs for high school grads here.
Why is there a double standard for who is deserving to have federal resources used to subsidize or even create a job and who is on their own? Couldn't one view the high school grads of Aberdeen as being too lazy to get off their butts and get a job that doesn't depend on the subsidized destruction of the National Forests? Or couldn't one conclude that the high schol grads of Tacoma deserve to have the Federal government create an economy for them so they can live here in Tacoma?
My point is that there are a lot more people on welfare than the ones that get Food Stamps. Somehow the conversation about what to do with the poor gets hung up on the issue of whether or not tax dollars should be used to subsidize those who could find work on their own, if they were willing to adapt and learn. And yet tax dollars are used for that purpose all the time if you count the moneys spend to suppport loggers, ranchers, miners and so on.

"In California, for example, it is almost impossible to get some one involuntarily committed unless they are an immediate physical danger to themself or others."

This is also true in many other states. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that it is true for almost all, if not all, of the US. In fact, it can be near to impossible to voluntarily admit someone with mental health issues who is not actively suicidal or homicidal--even if they are homeless, hearing voices, actively manic, near catatonic, or otherwise clearly unable to cope. While in general, I think people are better off out of hospitals than in them, I don't see how one can expect someone with florid psychosis to cope by him or herself.

Sufficient jobs paying better than poverty level wages might be a good starting point.

Yes, a booming economy cures many ills. :)

" I remember being really pissed at his statement because I teach school in Tacoma and no one feels obligated to use federal resources to create jobs for high school grads here. Why is there a double standard for who is deserving to have federal resources used to subsidize or even create a job and who is on their own?"

See also New Jersey's law against self-service gas stations.

The U.S. has a general, irrational bias towards:
1) litigation over regulation
2) regulation over gov't spending

And yes, the state of mental health care for the poor is a disgrace. And probably a disgrace that costs us more in crime, reduced property values, and incarceration costs than it would cost to fix it.

Something I've always wondered: since there are various programs that would pay for themselves -- fully funding WIC would, I think, pay for itself in the same fiscal year -- why on earth don't we just adopt them?

Sebastian:

"I think that poverty level is too low for those who work and probably about right for those who do not."

If you change "who do not" to "who will not under any circumstances," you might be surprised. I think in many ways we already (in patchwork fashion) provide that basic social safety net to those who will not work. But it would be a good first step to acknowledge that we are doing that, so that we could stop pissing away time and energy debating whether our policies "encourage work" in those situation where we are going to provide that level of service no matter how intractable the individual people are about working. And, having freed up some time, we could focus on creating additional programs that, for the targeted group within the poor, do actually encourage work.

"I am perfectly willing to admit that there are those who cannot work, but there are also those who will not work. Failing to distinguish between them would provide bad incentives in undesirable social directions."

And what I'm suggesting is that we (all of us, Dems/Pubs, etc.) so badly misunderstand how people work, our models are so poor, that we cannot distinguish between those whose intransigence about "will not work" amounts to "cannot work" and those others who are willing to work but for … fear, humiliation, a belief that the effort will be wasted, whatever. Because we so badly misunderstand the models, (among other things) we'll mis-capture those groups - Dems will spend money on people who (effectively) can't be helped, and Republicans will refuse to spend money on people who can. And to the extent the models (about motivations, needed skills, etc.) are bad, both will spend that money badly. In such a case, given the richness of our society (and that's a claim about our capacity as a society to take risk, not about moral obligation), I prefer to be mildly centrist Dem, rather than mildly centrist Pub. Most of the comments I see in the blogosphere are (by Blue area stds) wildly rightest.

Underlying all of this, I suspect, is the Right's belief in will-to-power and the Left's belief in technocratic, modeled claims about behavior arising from various external structures (which I assume is why the Right gets villified as Nazis and the Left as Stalinists). I understand the world more in the latter vocabulary. It's largely parallel with the language of science, which is why we are increasingly picking up those people. I think, over time, that manner of inquiry has and will in the future yield results.

But I also know that the Left (everyone from centrist Dems out) has, in the past, pissed away a great deal of good will by making stronger claims than the relative robustness of their models will bear. I just don't want the counter-response to be to throw out the idea of seeking better models and reverting to earlier, easier "good, right, and salutary" ones.

"But I also know that the Left (everyone from centrist Dems out) has, in the past, pissed away a great deal of good will by making stronger claims than the relative robustness of their models will bear."

That is a problem not just for the left. :)

It is, or used to be, a truism that societies as a whole became less poverty stricken once women had access to education (general and sex-ed) and birth control.

That seems to me to be self-evident: too many kids borne to too-young women short circuits the mothers' education and career opportunities, which in turn leads to the parent (or, rarely, parents) being unable to provide the "environment that fostered, encouraged, and nurtured... development in a positive way" that jadegold mentioned. Thus you get under-socialized or non-socialized kids who are stuck in the same cycle their parent(s) were stuck in. They can't make good decisions on things from drug use to sexual behavior, precisely because they don't have a good model at home and no one's providing them with one elsewhere.

It therefore seems equally self-evident to me that, if we were serious about breaking the cycle of poverty, bad education, and bad decisions, we would devote a lot of money, and a lot of expertise, and a lot of people, to healthcare, nutrition, education, guidance counseling, and sex-ed/birth control for people from conception to age 18. If the parents are useless (harsh word, but accurate) the kids should have access to mentors and counselors - not once they're already in trouble, but from the moment they show signs of not getting what they need at home.

One of the things I liked about Howard Dean was how he advocated a program for the nation like one he had in Vermont, that worked on exactly that model. He noted that, as early as kindergarten (maybe as early as pre-school) teachers could already tell which kids were headed for trouble. The Vermont program sent people trained in intervention to those kids' homes, and helped the entire family with counseling, guidance through the social services system, and stuff like that. They don't visit once and go away: they stick with the family to make sure things are improving.

The program seems to work, in terms of reductions in school drop-out levels, dramatic reductions in child abuse, and - though it's barely been in place long enough to get meaningful statistics - reductions in juvenile crime and recidivism.

The problem is, that kind of program requires a major investment, long-term commitment of that major investment, and flexibility to tailor the intervention to each family's specific needs.

The US is moving in the opposite direction, with public education underfunded and understaffed, sex-ed limited to abstinence (if offered at all), and birth control harder to get, esp. for teenagers. After-school programs took a hard hit, demonized as "basketball for gangs," and I doubt anyone is unaware that social workers have crippling case loads, so there's no way they can give their clients personalized, quality attention. NCLB emphasizes test scores, not actual learning (certainly not in critical thinking essential to making good life decisions), and, SFAIK, doesn't actually do anything about substandard schools except close them.

The political and religious trends that led to this combination of withholding funding, withholding information, and reducing already scarse resources are obvious, apparently popular, and not about to change any time soon.

I'm wondering if anyone has considered this in regard to other cultures. I know that there is some arguing over the fact of the acceptability of homosexuality in the classical world. (This link to a review of a Greek book seemed vaguely reasonable at first glance, but going up the url to this link is reveals a lot more than anyone would really want to know about the author's biases) and from Dover's matter of fact presentation in _Greek Homosexuality_, there seems to have been those that have glorified Greek acceptance of it and those who have argued that this is a myth, but is there a 'swishyness' associated with homosexuals in classic times?

The other two examples which I only know a little about are the phenomenon of berdache and in pre-Meiji Japan. The former seems to reflect the behavior that Sebstian talks about, but the latter doesn't, but I haven't really researched either of them well enough to know. However, the Greek and Japanese examples hold that the object of an older man's attraction should be a younger (preferably beardless) boy, so there's a power differential at the root of it.

Googling this turned up this speech by Mark Merlis about what sounds like a very interesting novel (excerpts here) which sounds like a very creative take on the myth of Philoctetes and Pyrrhus, Achilles' son. Anyone read it?

And thanks for the change of pace, Sebastian.

I don't know how I did that. As you were...

Not that I have much patience with people talking about poverty and hunger who have never been within telescope view of the same, but--

Most of the lazy, parasitic sponges I know, the ones who wouldn't work if they could get away with it, won't work when they do have jobs, and nevertheless have no shame about cheating the government every which way they can, on multiple levels - are wealthy conservative businessmen.

How about we start out taking seriously the Kozlowskis and Scruchys and all their lesser ilk who don't make it into the news?

We could also deal with a certain prominent midwestern supposedly pro-life Catholic businessman and educator, who's been involved in all kinds of shifty, law-evading deals at his college (including ones that violate homeland security for a quick buck) - and who fires women who get pregnant out of wedlock, and expels students the same.

Which is a *real* good way of contributing to the poverty problem, innit?

And then we could use some of that gross overpay of CEOs and lazy salesmen who can't be arsed to to even fill out basic paperwork before rushing off to the bar in their expensive cars all the while using the store stocks as a private family piggy bank, and give it to the clerks who are having to work two jobs just to pay the rent, perhaps, and the manual workers they're paying under the table, instead of setting up situations where those who go off welfare end up homeless because a) they must take any job, and b) very few jobs these days pay even enough to live frugally on.

The truly-devastating social parasites - you're looking with a microscope, when you should be looking with binoculars. But then this has always been their strategy, to hurl the little streets against the less, divide and conquer, ever since the titans of industry got smarter just under a hundred years ago, and realized that propaganda was a better tool than bullets against strikers and workers...

bellatrys: Don't flame me, because I agree with you; but you're reckoning without perceptions. Americans don't perceive themselves as being robbed by rich people; they only perceive themselves as being robbed by poor people.

Why? Because Americans have been conditioned to perceive taxes as evil: A necessary evil, when it comes to funding national defense - and, maybe, provisionally, public instructure (roads and schools); but just plain evil when it comes to funding anything else, esp. social service and entitlement programs. Therefore, any money for social service and entitlement programs is perceived as taken directly out of their pockets for something they disapprove of.

Whereas Americans perceive rich people as having gotten rich by the sweat of their brows and the nimbleness of their minds. This is a valuable myth for two reasons. One, Americans believe that they, too, will become rich some day if they just work hard and doggedly enough. Two, rich people 'didn't need' taxpayer dollars to get rich; therefore, they didn't have to pick taxpayer pockets, the way lazy poor people do.

These myths ignore corporate welfare, cronyism, tax evasion, and the 400:1 gap between executive and non-executive salaries. But discussing reality means getting into complicated areas of indirect subsidies, indirect impacts on commodity and consumer item pricing, and government-protected and subsidized monopolies. It also ignores (as you point out) the impact of a generation-long war on organized labor, which successfully demonized the single most effective means workers have of improving their salaries, benefits and working conditions.

Slightly off topic, but this article may give one a different view of the poor than is normally found.

In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated (as something too obvious to require any evidence) that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated...But her theory had no visible means of support. Whenever it was tested, the results were diametrically opposed to what she predicted: in fact "the canon" enabled "the masses" to become thinking individuals. Until fairly recently, Britain had an amazingly vital autodidact culture, where a large minority of the working classes passionately pursued classic literature, philosophy, and music. They were denied the educational privileges that Professor Smith enjoyed, but they knew that the "great books" that she derided would emancipate the workers.

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