Bryan Caplan  

Bill Dickens Responds on Poverty

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A few weeks ago Bill Dickens and I argued about poverty: see here and here for previous rounds.  Now Bill's written a lengthy response to my last post.  Italics indicate that Bill's quoting me.  Enjoy!


"I'm not merely saying that "bad behavior is bad for you."  I'm saying that bad behavior is a major cause of poverty.  If I'm right about this, there is a great, neglected remedy for poverty: Poor people should stop engaging in bad behavior. 

If this seems flippant, that's not my intention.  Poverty: Who To Blame will largely be a work of economic philosophy.  Part of my project is to provide intellectual foundations for what I perceive as Americans' justified frustration with welfare recipients."

So this is the crux of it. You subscribe to two central right-wing memes: government coddles the poor and won't make them face the tough choices everyone else does, and welfare recipients are overwhelmingly lazy and undeserving. Anyone with firsthand experience dealing with a wide range of the poor or those receiving government assistant (with the later being only a small subset of the former) knows these two things to be false. Further, I think your view on the causes of poverty and your view of the culpability of the impoverished for their circumstances are internally contradictory. Even Charles Murray acknowledged that beliefs in both the importance of cognitive ability and its genetic basis is grounds for progressive taxation. It is no leap at all to the notion that the poor are not culpable for their circumstances.

Let's start with the absurd notion that better behavior is a "...neglected remedy..." Neglected by whom? Certainly not the poor themselves. When I worked on Clinton's welfare reform taskforce I was struck by a number of things, but one thought that would never have occurred to me was that instructing people in the consequences of bad behavior would have the slightest impact on their condition. I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare recipients when I was working on the reform (and lots more people with precarious lives when interviewing people for a number of labor market projects). Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to support their family, they know it would be better if their children's father was there to help support their kids. There is no shortage of hectoring from society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media. Consider that even before the passage of TANF most women on welfare worked at least some during every year (on or off the books). Most welfare mothers are not drug abusers or alcoholics (when they have been tested only a tiny fraction fail). A lot had their children with a husband or boyfriend they had hoped to marry. A lot of the AFDC caseload cycled on and off welfare as people made repeated attempts to return to work (attempts that were often stymied by lack of adequate child care - one of the most common reasons for returning to welfare was being fired by a low wage employer for missing work when child care arrangements fell through).

Bryan, there is one thing I really think you ought to do before you write this book and that is to spend some time with people who are receiving state benefits and the wider group of poor who do not receive benefits but remain poor. If you do I think you will find it very hard to believe that these people are unaware of the consequences of their actions and that they aren't, overwhelmingly, trying to make their lives work. 

So now let's turn to the notion that welfare recipients are undeserving. This meme, again, is based on a huge misperception/lie. Over and over when I talk to people about government income support programs I'm told that they have no objection to giving money to the truly needy, but that they don't like supporting lazy bums who don't like to work. When I tell them that overwhelmingly government support goes to families (usually single women) with children they don't believe me. You, I think, know better so I wonder how you can hold the view that people's frustration with welfare recipients is justified. Overwhelmingly, government money goes to families with children. Whatever you may think of the parents' behavior the main recipients of government money are children and the disabled. You want to take money away from them? If not then you aren't going to have much impact on the income support budget (at least not without going after SS or Medicare).

Go through the list of government programs and look at the criteria for receiving money or the formulas for determining the size of benefits: TANF -- temporary and exclusively for families with children with benefits depending on the number of children, Food stamps - much more generous for families with children than for those without, EITC - depends on family size, only goes to those who work and the amount initially grows the more you work, WIC - nutrition support for pregnant women and infants, SCHIPS - health care for low income children who don't qualify for Medicaid, Disability Insurance programs - for the disabled. In terms of major government support programs that leaves four. The typical American does not consider recipients of Medicare and Social Security to be undeserving. That leaves Medicaid and unemployment insurance as the only major transfer programs that are conditional only on income and assets (and in the case of UI previous work experience) with no bias towards families or the disabled.

What most people seem to have in mind when they talk about welfare is General Assistance - that is aid to able-bodied individuals with no children. Such programs became prevalent during the 1930s but are almost non-existent today. As of 2005 only two states still had any GA program. Some counties and cities run such programs but the benefits are extremely limited. In general, Medicaid and food stamps are the only programs available to able-bodied adults with no children and they do not provide enough income for food cloths and shelter.

So where are the undeserving recipients of aid programs? It is certainly true that any attempt to provide a safety net is going to lead some people at the margin to rely on the safety net and work less than they would if it wasn't there. You cite my estimate that extended benefits increased the equilibrium unemployment rate by about 1 percentage point (as evidenced by an outward shift in the Beveridge curve consistent with a change of that magnitude that took place right around the time extended UI benefits were phasing in). There are several things I would like to point out here. Art Okun used to talk about transfer programs as leaky buckets. They do not create first best solutions. The question is whether the amount that reaches the deserving recipients, and the good that does, isn't justification for what is lost through the "leaks." That is a question to consider very carefully. Better buckets are good. Very leaky buckets need to be dropped or replaced. But leaks are not a reason by themselves not to try to use a bucket.

Another thing to consider is what people would be doing in the absence of a transfer program. In the case of the increase in the unemployment rate induced by unemployment insurance there are two ways UI could cause that. You are thinking that it causes people not to take jobs they otherwise would, but the unemployment rate also goes up if you keep people in the labor force who would otherwise cease looking for work. Recent evidence suggests that the impact of UI is much more the latter than the former (also I'm moving away from my original view on this as a considerable decline in the number of people claiming long-term unemployment insurance has done nothing to shift the Beveridge curve back in so we are back to the drawing board in trying to explain this phenomena).

Now let's consider the case of a bucket that was probably too leaky and needed to be replaced. As you know I was converted by my experience with Clinton's welfare reform task force to the belief that AFDC needed to be time limited. Over and over I heard young women tell me that they didn't think much about having a baby because that is what people in their world did. "You get to be 16, you get yourself a baby and you get yourself a check and an apartment." AFDC as a career choice was a serious problem back then. But even as we went around preparing the welfare reform we heard over-and-over again that the word was out that welfare was going away and you were going to have to do something else now. Starting in the early 90s - long before TANF actually limited benefits to 2 years - AFDC caseloads started dropping and ultimately dropped enormously.

I strongly suspect that today the career welfare moms are gone leaving two main types; what we called the "easy cases" and the "hard cases." The easy cases (which substantially outnumber the hard ones) are the ones where a working mother gets sick and can't support her kids, or one where a housewife suddenly finds herself divorced with no support from the ex-husband, or where a woman has been driven into a shelter by a battering husband or boyfriend. Those cases are relatively easy because those women typically have the resources to support themselves and only need fairly short term assistance (at least during normal times - in today's economy all such bets would be off). The hard cases (we figured about 20% of the peak AFDC caseloads in 1992) were those with multiple problems. Drug and alcohol addiction often went together with a history of abuse. Many of the women were mentally ill, and/or had serious chronic physical health problems or both. Some you felt sorry for, but in a number of cases you might justifiably feel that the woman's poor choices had brought the problems on herself. But again, it's the woman's children who benefit most from the aid. Even in the worst cases of an undeserving mother, the children are more deserving than ever. Those who want to push the case of the undeserving welfare recipients never want to discuss the children. 

In your post you list low IQ as one of the main causes of poverty and dependency. I believe you also accept the notion that differences in IQ are largely driven by genetic differences and that those differences are at least very hard to change if not immutable. How do you square that with the belief that American's frustration with welfare recipients is justifiable? To the extent that poverty is caused by people not having the mental resourced to take care of themselves and their families what is the basis for blaming them for their bad choices and the subsequent results? (Of course cognitive ability plays only a very small roll in explaining the income distribution - only about 16% of the variance in a cross section regression and only about 25% if you bend every assumption in favor of there being measurement error when interpreting current income as a measure of permanent income.)

Those are my main objections to your stated objectives. Now for some point-by-point on your reply.

If you do a cross-country comparison, I suspect you're right: Low-income Swedes do seem less self-destructive than low-income Americans.  If you do an over-time comparison within countries, however, the opposite seems to be true.  For starters, the American poor had very high rates of employment and high marital stability when the welfare state was smaller.

I disagree that the time-series correlation goes the other way. Look at European countries that introduced more generous social welfare benefits. Did they see an increase in working class pathology? I don't think so. But take Steve Sailors example of Britain. One of the few other countries that has experienced the same gutting of good work for working class people. I suspect you will find (in both the US and Britain) that the timing of the deterioration of white working class circumstances is more consistent with the economic change explanation than the growth of welfare.

In any case, have you considered the possibility that countries with relatively prudent low-income populations can afford to have more generous social welfare systems?

The US white working class population was indistinguishable from any European population in the same class position (or if anything was more like the middle class than those populations in other countries). I doubt you could show this to be true.

It's still easy for today's white working class to get jobs that would support a family at the income level of the 1950s.  U.S. per-capita income in 1950 was under $10,000 (1990 dollars).  That actually understates the ease of maintaining earlier living standards because modern household technology and family size make it a lot easier for mothers to work.

You can't be serious. First, I don't know where you got that, but here is my comparable calculation. In 1959 the average non-supervisory nonagricultural worker made $78.78 a week. Multiply by 52 weeks gives you $4,096. Inflation since then has been about 740% giving us an inflation adjusted annual income of more than $30k. Take the low skilled individual who drops from a job at a steel mill or an auto plant to working for $10 an hour and that guy now makes $20k. That person has to overcome two huge disadvantages. The inflation adjustment takes into account the fact that a lot of manufactured goods are much cheaper in terms of work hours now than they used to be as is food. However, the cost of housing has gone up so that someone making $20k a year isn't going to be able to live in the same sort of neighborhood that a working class person in the 50s and 60s could afford. The other big item is that if that person wants his kids to have any chance to do better than him (something the people in the 50s and 60s could basically take for granted) he'll have to send them to college at huge costs. Mothers can work for sure, but first before and after school child care (let alone full day care for children who aren't in school yet) costs about $6k per year per child - there goes mom's income. Also, working mothers end up having to spend a lot more on prepared foods and dinning out.

That said, I also happen to think that reducing the generosity of the welfare state and making assistance conditional on good behavior will (eventually) reduce bad behavior

That is the nature of TANF now. You have to seriously look for work or make progress in job training to receive the benefits. Ultimately, if your benefits run out, you're out of the program. There is a reasonable argument that could be made for giving caseworkers more discretion in the granting of benefits. This seems to work well in some European countries and in some tenant run housing projects in the US. In fact, this is the way the system functioned prior to some court decisions in the late 1960s. The problem is that the courts found that the caseworkers were arbitrary and discriminated on the basis of race. There is also the problem of what do you do with the children when you cut off a mothers' benefits.  I would be all in favor of moves back in this direction and would like to see more experimentation with more extensive caseworker involvement and discretion. Of course in the short run this will cost more money and for the states that run these programs such money is in very short supply right now.

If the American working class had responded to long-term economic changes by forming stable two-earner marriages, they'd still be doing fine.

I expect you will demonstrate this in the book? You will provide a budget for such a stable family that includes child care and will take into account the volatility of income for such people and the likelihood of extreme stress (what fraction of marriages break up over money problems)?

Not quite.  Some people make very very bad trade-offs; others make very very good trade-offs. 

You know better than this. Impatience is the norm. For most people impulse control is a major problem. It isn't a matter of cool calculation. I have always been amazed by how you seem to have no sense of this. I suspect that there is something very very right with you which makes you a very productive scholar but has the side effect of making you unsympathetic with the vast majority of us who, in the words of the great comedic vocalist Allen Sherman, "Let the diet start tomorrow while today I drown my sorrow in a double chocolate milk." You know Khanaman's two systems theory. There is the rational calculating mind and there is the intuitive system. The vast majority of our decisions are made intuitively and that intuitive mind is liable to all sorts of well-known decision errors. You want to blame people for not making more use of their rational facilities, but you want to put them in situations where they find it harder to do so. We know from experimental evidence that the more people feel threatened/at risk the LESS likely they are to make reasoned decisions and the more likely they are to act emotionally. This gets us back to the discussion before of whether the notion that bad behavior causes bad outcomes is "neglected." People know they make bad decisions. They often know when they are making them that they are bad. Telling them that they are being stupid isn't news to them. Find ways to change the system to help them make better decisions and I'm all with you. Take money away from children because their mothers and fathers made bad choices I'm very disappointed. Overlook all the people who are receiving aid not because of bad choices, but bad luck and I'm more than disappointed - I'm angry.

Last point: I realize that my perspective on poverty may seem fundamentally immoral to you, Bill. 

I doubt this. Unless you really are going to start punishing children for their parents' sins I think our views mainly diverge on the extent to which we are willing to assign blame for mistakes to the people who make them. I suspect this may be due, at least to some extent, to the degree to which we find controlling our own behavior difficult. It may also have to do with our personal experiences with people who have mental illnesses or are otherwise less than completely competent. I think our views also diverge on the extent to which those receiving government support are there because of their bad decisions as opposed to their bad luck.

Let me close by asking you a question I publicly asked Paul Krugman:

Why are you so forgiving of people with irresponsible lifestyles, but so outraged by people who don't want to pay taxes to help people with irresponsible lifestyles?  This seems morally perverse.  If you're going to single anyone out for condemnation, it should be the person who behaves irresponsibly in the first place, not the complete stranger who asks, "How is this my fault?"

This is an entirely fair question and yet another reason why I doubt that I would ever conclude that your views are immoral. So let me answer your question. First, I'm not "outraged" by people who don't want to pay taxes to support the government transfer system. A few of them may be selfish and/or racist jerks. There are few enough of them that I could care less. I believe that most people with that view are misinformed about who gets government transfers, how the programs are administered, the amount of the benefits, and how much of their taxes go to such programs. I think the vast majority of people, if they knew the facts, would not object to paying taxes for the system. They don't know the facts in large part because cynical right-wing politicians and journalists miss-portray the system and its participants.

Now I suspect that you and I have a fundamental disagreement on the legitimacy of government coercion. I feel fairly certain that the state mainly makes us much better off than we would be without it and that justifies its existence and the reason why the overwhelming majority of people in democracies all over the world consent to be governed. I suspect that in your view the exact opposite is true - government makes things worse and we would be better off without it. To some extent this difference is driven by a difference in values - we both value individual liberty a lot, but I don't weight it as strongly as you do.

So my bottom line is this:

  1. Overwhelmingly government transfer programs help children who are innocent of any mistakes made by their parents and overwhelmingly I think American's would want to see them taken care of by the state, as would I. In the overwhelming majority of cases the best (and cheapest) way to accomplish this is to provide resources to their parents.
  2. Beyond the children, the vast majority of recipients of government support are in a position where they need it due to bad luck. No doubt you could come up with ways they could have avoided being in that situation (they could have gone to school longer, they could have saved more money, they could have looked more aggressively for a job when they lost their job), but my response would be that many many other people in similar circumstances did not suffer as they did and that a system where the government provides insurance against such risks is superior to one in which people are forced to provide for their own security no matter what the cost.
  3. Bad behavior certainly plays some roll, but its roll in putting people on government assistance is limited. To the extent it is a problem we should be constantly looking for ways to improve the system. To the extent the problem can't be solved we should accept that the bucket sometimes leaks and that that is part of the price for providing for those in need.


COMMENTS (65 to date)
John Thacker writes:

It is difficult to design a system without leaks. For example, the same requirements that prevent the able bodied without children from getting benefits also impose extremely high marginal tax rates on small increases in income and also heavily punish marriage. Not an easy thing to fix, as most methods without punishing good behavior allow some degree of undeserving recipients.

egd writes:

"Unless you really are going to start punishing children for their parents' sins"

I take from this that it is morally unacceptable to punish children for the sins of their parents.

How is it morally acceptable to punish taxpayers (or taxpayers' children) for the sins of non-taxpayers?

Ezadarque writes:

Bryan,

I have been reading your blog for quite a while now, and I am always impressed by the soundness of your arguments. I was always, however, very uneasy about your views on poverty. Mr. Dickens writes exactly what I would like to have thought on my own.

mick writes:

It is ironic that every time liberal policies cause mass unemployment many conservatives blame the poor instead of the liberals. This is exactly the debate liberals want to have. Instead of having to defend the results of their policy, they get to defend the victims of their own policy. If conservatives actually want to win this fight they have to argue that the rate of poverty is correlated with liberal economic, which is statistically true.

sieben writes:

"Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition."

Talk is cheap. It is easy to say "I should have studied hard and not messed around". It is more difficult to actually do buckle down. But here, Dickens is conceding that Bryan is correct that there are many obvious things the poor can do! I don't see why Dickens focuses on their remorse. Of COURSE people (say they) regret bad decisions.

"A lot had their children with a husband or boyfriend they had hoped to marry."

And the obvious retort is... I mean for whom would this not be true? "Yeah I had a child out of wedlock but I didn't want the guy to be involved".

"one of the most common reasons for returning to welfare was being fired by a low wage employer for missing work when child care arrangements fell through)."

It sounds like a very easy thing to lie about.

"When I tell them that overwhelmingly government support goes to families (usually single women) with children they don't believe me."

Nor should they. Bryan has pointed out that the welfare state is mainly focused on transfer payments to the elderly, who tend to be relatively wealthy.

"I'm told that they have no objection to giving money to the truly needy, but that they don't like supporting lazy bums who don't like to work."

Man. The straw men.

"Go through the list of government programs"

No. I won't go through the list. That approach suffers from extreme sampling bias. Many of the programs listed are very minor and shouldn't weigh heavily in characterizing the US welfare state. Nor is welfare even the primary focus! It is on the poor, whether or not they are recipients of welfare!!!

"I strongly suspect that today the career welfare moms are gone leaving two main types; what we called the "easy cases" and the "hard cases.""

Wrong. They are almost all easy cases. Don't have children when you're financially unstable.

"The US white working class population was indistinguishable from any European population in the same class position"

I'm flabbergasted. Literally can't think of a succinct rebuttal. This is an example of how you can exploit volumetric-asymmetry to win arguments. Just kick the can down the road until your opponent slips up in the enormous workload you place on him.

"I expect you will demonstrate this in the book? You will provide a budget for such a stable family that includes child care and will take into account the volatility of income for such people and the likelihood of extreme stress (what fraction of marriages break up over money problems)?"

Bryan doesn't have to. I know for a fact that there are healthy shopping lists budgeted out to help people follow whole-foods diets. It is not a far stretch to imagine a similar plan already exists for all of life's necessary expenses.

"We know from experimental evidence that the more people feel threatened/at risk the LESS likely they are to make reasoned decisions and the more likely they are to act emotionally."

Yeah like, if you might be homeless tomorrow, you might get a job even if it hurts your macho tough-guy ego.

Anyway, this is a very long post with no citations beyond Bill's personal experience. I had a facebook conversation with him (that went much the same) in which I discovered he was mistaken about facts he claimed to be intimately and professionally familiar, and little time could actually be spent on the original line of discussion.

I'll just say that I wish Bill would put out greater effort in the public arena.

pyroseed13 writes:

Very interesting post. I do think concerns about how to deal with children has always been a problem for us libertarians unfortunately.

RogC writes:

Mr Dickens is long on reasons for poor choices but short on reasons why poor choices are not the cause of staying in poverty. Chance may make a pauper of anyone and a small percentage are truly unable to rise out of poverty but overwhelmingly if you have been destitute for an extended period of time the reason lies in the mirror.

If you are born into poverty and grow up in a region where the vast majority are also poor it's quite true that you may have no idea how to escape. I lived that life and feel escaping it is no small feat but if you continuously try you will eventually succeed. Assemble any group of people who made it out and you will hear similar themes. It takes a constant long term effort to first learn what you need to do and then do it.

To learn what people must do to climb out of the ranks of the poor forget about the guy who interviews a hundred people who have accepted their lot and talk to people who made the climb about their choices and changes. Every year thousands move into the middle class from the bottom yet when any academic or media attention is given to them at all it usually ends when they answer the 'secret' is plain hard work and never accepting that your current situation is what you are stuck with.

Trespassers W writes:

@sieben:

Talk is cheap.

Ha! I was just about to write exactly the same thing regarding exactly the same comment. Must be another one of those "right-wing memes".

Speaking of which, who is responsible for the left-wing meme "right-wing meme"? Lakoff? It's awfully tiresome.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Others above have torn Bill's arguments apart, but I'll add a couple of other things.

1. Compare this to teeth hygiene. Bryan is saying the equivalent of "We should encourage people to brush their teeth so they don't need as much dental work." Bill's response is, "People with bad teeth regret not having brushed them earlier in life." Do you see how Bill misses the temporal point?

When's the last time you saw the government run TV commercials that said, "Make sure you get married before having kids!" instead of "Now that you are unmarried with kids, you might not realize that all you have to do is call us to get your benefits!"

Which of those do you think provides incentive for having less poor folks? Prevention can be worth a lot.

2. Some of Bill's other arguments are self-contradictory. For example, he says general assistance programs "... are almost non-existent today." and then adds "Medicaid and food stamps are the only programs available to able-bodied adults with no children ..."

As if medicaid and food stamps aren't big GA programs? He also leaves off EITC as a GA program. No spouse/child requirement for that, either.

The government's war on poverty isn't working. You can look at changing poverty trends before and after it began to see that. The only thing really helping poverty is the increase in national wealth from producers.

I prefer to make my own choices about where my charity goes. It's much harder to do after the government takes my resources to give to their favorites.

ed writes:

I haven't spent a lot of time around poor people personally. But I have read several books about such people, written by generally sympathetic writers. (Two good examples: "American Dream" by Jason DeParle and "Hope in the Unseen" by Ron Suskind. Neither author is anything like a conservative ideologue.)

These books are FILLED with examples of poor people making unwise choices that prevent them from escaping poverty (even excluding the non-negligible minority involved in substance abuse and crime). The most important one is probably having children out of wedlock. Another is failing to save any financial resources to cushion against temporary shocks (any windfall is immediately blown).

Now I don't really condemn the individuals for these decisions...they are merely reflecting the culture in which they were raised. But I do have a problem with policies that allow and encourage that culture to survive and spread.

Vipul Naik writes:

Dickens may be right that the poor-focused part of the US welfare state is quite small today and doesn't create too many adverse effects.
I stand unconvinced by Dickens' other arguments. Dickens:

Certainly not the poor themselves. When I worked on Clinton's welfare reform taskforce I was struck by a number of things, but one thought that would never have occurred to me was that instructing people in the consequences of bad behavior would have the slightest impact on their condition. I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare recipients when I was working on the reform (and lots more people with precarious lives when interviewing people for a number of labor market projects). Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to support their family, they know it would be better if their children's father was there to help support their kids. There is no shortage of hectoring from society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media.

Dickens is right that a person can *recite* all the right things to say about what they should have done differently in the past. That's not the same as saying they'll do those things in the future. Talk is cheap.

Talk's also cheap for those doing the hectoring. Dickens is right that "[t]here is no shortage of hectoring ..." but I think Caplan's suggestion is not to ramp up the hectoring but rather to replace it with a simple "no, sorry, can't help ya." Hectoring + bailing out may make the recipient of help recite tales of contrition. Refusing to help carries both a strong unstated verbal message and a powerful incentive to change behavior.

I haven't worked in any welfare office or been there, but I have met and talked to a number of panhandlers who claimed to be homeless (probably many of them were homeless). Their words often conveyed the mix of contrition, helplessness, and gratitude that Dickens describes. Their actions, including barefaced and persistent lying, spoke otherwise. I can help them, but I can also draw the line and say, "I'm not helping you" or "I'm not helping you beyond $X."

Dickens:

You know better than this. Impatience is the norm. For most people impulse control is a major problem. It isn't a matter of cool calculation. I have always been amazed by how you seem to have no sense of this. I suspect that there is something very very right with you which makes you a very productive scholar but has the side effect of making you unsympathetic with the vast majority of us who, in the words of the great comedic vocalist Allen Sherman, "Let the diet start tomorrow while today I drown my sorrow in a double chocolate milk." You know Kahnenaman's two systems theory. There is the rational calculating mind and there is the intuitive system. The vast majority of our decisions are made intuitively and that intuitive mind is liable to all sorts of well-known decision errors. You want to blame people for not making more use of their rational facilities, but you want to put them in situations where they find it harder to do so. We know from experimental evidence that the more people feel threatened/at risk the LESS likely they are to make reasoned decisions and the more likely they are to act emotionally. This gets us back to the discussion before of whether the notion that bad behavior causes bad outcomes is "neglected." People know they make bad decisions. They often know when they are making them that they are bad. Telling them that they are being stupid isn't news to them. Find ways to change the system to help them make better decisions and I'm all with you.

I think Caplan is suggesting that changing the system by removing incentives for bad behavior will create better behavior, so this isn't a big point of disagreement.

Overall, it's hardly the case that the behavioral economics/psychology Dickens cites makes the case against Caplan. It's true that people have a problem with impulse control. Why, then, offer them something -- welfare and bailouts -- which they might get habituated to, further weakening their impulse control? Could the temporary pluses be offset by the shock created by the eventual withdrawal of the benefits?

Dickens also writes about IQ and genetics. I'm quite unconvinced by this. IQ and some character traits are partly heritable. And having a higher IQ and certain character traits makes it easier to correct the folly of one's ways, so yes, it's easier for high IQ people to avoid various bad habits. But it's not extremely hard for low IQ people to avoid bad habits either, and in fact, a large number of low IQ people *do* avoid the behaviors that Caplan and Dickens are talking about. [To take an analogy, people who can walk faster may be able to get from one place to the other more quickly, but this isn't an excuse for slow walkers to habitually be late for work. The advantages of a high IQ when it comes to avoiding traps seems to be more of a "walk faster" nature]

ajb writes:

The points Dickens makes are overly biased in favor of those groups that make systematically bad choices. Let us consider how two groups of poor people acted. One were newly arrived Koreans in the 1960s and 70s who couldn't speak english and had little money and the other are the poor non-Asian minorities they often lived side by side with for many years. Which group emerged successfully after 3 decades? Once we acknowledge that one group behaved better than the other we can have a real philosophical conversation. Indeed we have evidence that even middle and upper middle class black and hispanic families have less productive habits than very poor East Asians. So blaming it on the difficulty of making do with minimum wage is a side show. Have Dickens or Ehrenreich seen the lives of immigrants to Chinatown and how they live? Have they compared how the black poor spend their money to the Asian poor? Or even middle class to middle class?

To say that many NAMs have poor social capital should not excuse their behavior. And it especially should not excuse that of elite theorists who railed against those who tried to impose "bourgeois values." It is exactly the need to praise those bourgeois values that Bryan is supporting and that the Left has weakened through social opprobrium and deliberate policy choices. The success of Catholic schools in helping inner city kids to change behavior though NOT iq speaks to the value of appropriate life choices and the need to enforce discipline.

MingoV writes:

I grew up among poor people in a rural environment and spent plenty of time with poor people while learning medicine in Brooklyn. I agree with Bryan Caplan that bad behavior is the primary cause of poverty in the USA. The three bad behaviors that, in my opinion, most correlate with poverty are:

1. Poor impulse control and unwillingness to delay gratification: People who buy or do whatever they want whenever they can are more likely to be poor. I had relatives who spent every dime they earned and every dime they could borrow and then lost their homes shortly after a financial setback such as loss of overtime work or loss of a job.

2. Poor relationships: People who don't build solid relationships with adult partners are more likely to be poor. While in Brooklyn, I saw innumerable single mothers whose children were fathered by different men, none of whom stuck around, and none of whom provided any parental or financial support to their children or emotional support to the children's mothers.

3. Overuse of consciousness- or mind-altering drugs: People who abuse opiates, amphetamines, sedatives, tranquilizers, alcohol, or hallucinogens are more likely to make bad decisions, to care less about work and family, and to be poor.

Ricardo writes:

GREAT exchange! Thank you for giving me something to think about!

Kevin writes:
"People know they make bad decisions. They often know when they are making them that they are bad."

Dickens gave away the game when he wrote that. Once you concede that the poor are poor by choice, they defacto become undeserving of (forced) aid and the case in favor of said aid is reduced to little more than an emotional impulse in favor of altruism (or selfish signaling, if you prefer). This is the case even among many non-libertarians.

It may also have to do with our personal experiences with people who have mental illnesses or are otherwise less than completely competent.

I grew up relatively poor, surrounded by other relatively poor families and individuals. My takeaway from that experience? Bryan is right.

Unlike many of the people I grew up with, I'm unusually prone to saving money, I'm attracted to education and can work with others for long periods without causing problems. You know what? Escaping (relative) poverty was easy; I just floated out on good behavior. I had help from responsible, altruistic relatives (whom I try to emulate to this day), but it was limited and wouldn't have made a difference paired with the kind of irresponsible behaviours I grew up around.


As an aside, does anyone else find it mildly insulting that Dickens seems to say that the average person, is essentially not responsible for their own actions in his view? That just seems terribly insulting, to deny people agency simply because they do not have (what is described as) super-human self-control.

Mark Bahner writes:
I believe that most people with that view are misinformed about who gets government transfers, how the programs are administered, the amount of the benefits, and how much of their taxes go to such programs. I think the vast majority of people, if they knew the facts, would not object to paying taxes for the system. They don't know the facts in large part because cynical right-wing politicians and journalists miss-portray the system and its participants.

I think that the vast majority (99%, to borrow a convenient number) of people are not aware that federal government transfers of money from one group of people to another (to "objects of benevolence," is illegal (a violation of the U.S. Constitution).

If people knew that fact...I'm not sure if or how that would change their opinions. But I'd like to find out.

P.S. I'm sure most readers of this blog know what I'm referring to by "objects of benevolence." For those that don't...James Madison, when he was in Congress, and confronted with a bill to pay a pathetically small amount to French refugees from Santo Domingo, told his fellow Representatives: "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."

Walter Williams on the Constitution and transfers of money

Matt C writes:

It seems like Bill is shifting the focus from the question of whether poverty is caused by bad behavior, to the value and virtue of government assistance for poor people. Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought the emphasis was the other way around.

> [Bill] but one thought that would never have occurred to me was that instructing people in the consequences of bad behavior would have the slightest impact on their condition.

Heh. If poverty is caused by bad behavior, actually changing the bad behavior is what is needed.

If Bill's point is that it is hard to change people's behavior with a lecture, I'm sure we'd all agree. If his point is that making mistakes when you're young (like getting a criminal record or having kids you can't really support) can have long run consequences, well, I think we all agree with that too. Neither of these seem like direct counters to your point that behavior is the cause of poverty rather than the other way round, though.

> I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare recipients when I was working on the reform (and lots more people with precarious lives when interviewing people for a number of labor market projects).

I don't have this kind of experience, but I had/have quite a few friends and family members who were on the bottom half of the SES ladder, and my experience is that poverty is strongly correlated with screwed up behavior. Substance abuse, and hanging out with borderline criminals being the first tier, and being unwilling to find and keep a steady job as the second tier. (*)

Bill's further remarks on his welfare mothers seem a little carefully chosen to me. Saying that they mostly held at least some employment, or mostly passed drug tests, is not the same thing as saying they were mostly acting responsibly and prudently. I wonder if he'd be willing to remark on his overall, anecdotal impressions of responsible and prudent behavior among the people he interviewed.

* The other guy pointed out out of wedlock births, which are surely important too, but unmarried parenthood was not so common when I was younger and knew lots of losers.

DB writes:

I think it's Dickens who needs to mingle with the poor. He spoke with 100? I lived and worked for/with perhaps a couple thousand over my first 20 years. Pre-TANF, I was a disadvantaged youth job counselor for about 300 kids in a chronically poor county. At jobsites that let kids slack, the kids ended the program no better than before. At jobsites where a supervisor demanded good work behavior (on time, respect, effort), invariably a significant percentage of the kids (usually at least a third) were visibly improved and happier even though they were working harder in oppressive heat. I noticed four strong trends: 1) the "good" supervisors had to work harder; 2) pro-work peer support developed among the kids in the firmly supervised crews; 3) the good supervisors all came from poor working class; and 4) the supervisors with the most education/status or who were employed in social services were the worst (that included the Employment Security Commission office). Draw your own conclusions.

Instead of psychoanalyzing welfare reformers ("rightwing", "blaming", "undeserving" "punishing"), I think Dickens should revisit his psychoanalysis of the poor. If there is a way to modify their behavior in a way that improves their lives, or even just spares the next wouldbe poor generation, there is no moral high ground in bandaiding the problem to maintain the failing status quo.

Mike M writes:

Anyone with firsthand experience dealing with a wide range of the poor or those receiving government assistant (with the later being only a small subset of the former) knows these two things (government coddles the poor and won't make them face the tough choices everyone else does, and welfare recipients are overwhelmingly lazy and undeserving) to be false.

While it's a nice rhetorical trick, it's one of the oldest fallacies in the book.

With all due respect to Professor Dickens, spending one's professional career in the ivory tower doesn't begin to give one "firsthand" experience in observing the poor or those on welfare - they're not synonymous Professor! - as many folks know how to "play the game" when they enter your environment. I spent 25 years of my career in "their" environment dealing with the entire socioeconomic spectrum of folks and I've also spent a great deal of time conversing with those "right-wing" meanies you deride and I can tell you that most right-wingers don't feel that the poor are un-rationally lazy. Most of us understand that given the option of working for $100 or not working and still getting $100, most people - rich or poor - will opt for receiving the same reward for less work. As a university professor, I'm sure you understand! And yes, the bleeding hearts like you think that the economic truism that incentives matter is somehow suspended when it causes your agenda to be questioned.

I'm not "outraged" by people who don't want to pay taxes to support the government transfer system. A few of them may be selfish and/or racist jerks.

I was wondering how long he could hold out before injecting the race card into he argument. Obviously, if you are a staunch supporter of property rights, you're a racist.

R. Jones writes:

I don't know about most Americans, but I'm less sympathetic to single women with children than just about any other group. It's one thing to be a selfish leech. It's quite another thing, in severely dire circumstances, to decide bring a life into the world just so that you won't be lonely, and then ask someone else to foot the bill. It's sick. Single women with children are almost exclusively responsible for the perpetuation of the suffering of the poor. I don't really have much a problem supporting the lazy, as long as they don't reproduce.

Brian Holtz writes:

Dickens' response about housing costs surely evaporates if, instead of looking at ownership of increasingly-larger homes, you look at rental costs per square foot.

Eclair writes:

Even those of us who value the ethic of personal liberty above all others must come to terms with what I see as the core of Mr. Dickens' argument: that those being helped by government assistance programs are generally the victims of unfortunate circumstances, and as such are worthy of our charity. If you disagree, I urge you to reconsider one of his points: that the majority of government assistance is directed towards children, most of whom were born into poverty through no fault of their own. Do we truly believe that liberty can exist for them without basic means?

The question of how to conduct such charity, and to what degree it should be socialized, is a separate matter. If you wish to personally fault the poor for their mistakes, that is certainly your choice. As a matter of policy, doing so seems likely to be as ineffective as abstinence-only education is in preventing pregnancy. I look forward to reading what Bryan has to say in response, and particularly

@ sieban:

You attack Mr. Dickens for citing his extensive personal experience in this matter. Do you doubt the honesty of his claims, or are you satisfied to personally assume that the hundreds of individuals he encountered were liars? You seem ready to dismiss his arguments out of hand, yet offer no reasoning for doing so (thus far) outside of unsupported personal suspicion. You may also wish to reconsider your accusation of a straw man argument in light of one of your own remarks: "Yeah like, if you might be homeless tomorrow, you might get a job even if it hurts your macho tough-guy ego." You more or less personified his supposedly-inaccurate perception of a right-wing ideologue.

Eli writes:

I'm poor, and I'm sorry to say that Bryan's description fits my experience. The poor people I work with almost always 1) have a low value for money relative to other things (I put myself in this category) 2) are on merely working with me as a stepping stone toward something else, usually college related or 3) low iq, conscientiousness and patience.

My friend Josh worked with me at Taco Bell, he has worked there for 7 years. He's a great guy, I love him, and I would do anything to help him. But he's divorced twice with a child from each woman. He drinks whenever he has a problem. Talks about going to school and making his life right, but drops out every time he manages to sign up. I hate to say it but, he's the perfect representative of most of the people I have ever worked with. He's not in need of a leg-up, he needs to not make terrible decisions.

Jeff Neuman-Lee writes:

There is a larger context to all that has been said. What, exactly, is poverty? What is the meaning of money? What is the point of the human community?

Like religious fundamentalists are blinded to the realities of life, faith in the assumptions of economics can blind us to the real world.

I was talking with a woman on SSI the other night. She was BiPolar and was in her manic stage. Sure, she might change her behavior, but how?

I have a friend who, during the worst of the downturn could not get a job for love or money. She had qualifications, but if an employer had to choose between someone who looked better and my friend who had bitter scaring from acne as a kid, they chose the other person. She suffered years of this abuse and suffers from great depression. Tell me, how does she get out of that so that she can fit in to a system that does not want her?

Or someone who talks black and looks very black who is never picked when there are plenty of lighter folks who speak with a Midwest accent. Don't think that doesn't happen. And then those guys stand around with resentment and self abasement. You would too, if it happened to you. What do I see fixing it? When some people put themselves on the line, set aside their American Dream aspirations, and be with those people.

Are these people simply problems to be solved? Why? So that America can be more efficient? What does that mean? More video/gaming/ipod/ipad experience? Sitting around getting fatter?

The way many of the commentators on this blog speak of their fellow human-beings makes me wonder if they care. And if you really don't, why bother talking about it? Dickens' suggestion that people actually go out and spend time with the people who are the object of discussion is most worthy.

Scot writes:

I think the thing that bothers me about Bill Dickens' comments the most is that he writes as if private charity doesn't exist. You can help the poor without relying on the coercive power of government.

I'm of a mind that nothing undermines the charitable nature of men worse than the welfare state. Is a world that takes voluntaryism seriously really that hard to imagine?

Mike W writes:

Wow, good stuff guys. If you want to see a depressing portrayal of the lower class go see the movie "Killer Joe".

Mike W writes:

My objection is not so much with the bottome 20% as it is with the middle 60%. Those who engage in the dysfunctional behavior described by Bryan and who do not take advantage of the opportunies available to them and then expect someone else to pay for what the believe is due to them...e.g., health care.

Bill P writes:

Many reasonable points are made in the responses from right wing individuals. But none of these outraged comments is really answering Dickens' strongest point.

Most of the welfare spending supports families with young children or the disabled. I can appreciate your desire not to support undeserving, non-disabled adults. I can't see how you justify punishing innocent children for the sins of their parents. Did they somehow offend you by choosing to be born to disfunctional families?

Lee Kelly writes:
Anyone with firsthand experience dealing with a wide range of the poor or those receiving government assistant (with the later being only a small subset of the former) knows these two things to be false. - Dickens

No, not at all. I agree with Bryan because of all the stories people who have firsthand experience dealing with poor people and their (normally self-inflicted) misery. My work also takes me into or around the homes of poor people, many of them receiving welfare benefits. I've also worked at a local store that primarily serves poor people (which gives one a very good vantage to watch how they choose to spend their money). These people are not in poverty by any sensible meaning of the term, but they do live in a kind of squalor.

What such people say is very bad way of finding out anything about their circumstances. For example, I've heard at least a dozen stories about poor people who apparently cannot afford their $5 per month medication, but who can nonetheless afford to smoke a pack a day, eat out regularly, subscribe to satellite television, and so on. The worst thing is that sometimes, when these facts are pointed out, they do not see the contradiction. That is, they still think they can't afford their medication, because all those luxuries--and all the free time to enjoy them--is simply taken a baseline standard of living.

The poor I'm talking about don't understand or refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. They speak about every negative occurrence in their lives as though it were bad luck or fate, but that is more to protect their own egos and divert attention from their bad habits. The smarter ones will admit this on occasion, while the rest just repeat these narratives almost reflexively.

In a world where people differ along dimensions of personality and competence (especially conscientiousness and IQ), then we should expect poor people to predominantly be people who make bad decisions, either because of character flaws or stupidity, rather than people who are just down on their luck--people who are down on their luck normally don't stay down for very long.

People like Dickens seem to be preoccupied with refuting this ideas. But what would that say about the education, criminal justice, cultural, and free market systems? Is there no connection between peoples' personality and talents and whether they end up poor or wealthy, liked or disliked, satisfied or miserable, burglar or brain surgeon, family or single mother? Is is all just mere chance?

The mere fact that people vary on these dimensions and it has systemic consequences is enough to expect disparities. However, if the poor are typically not making the best life-decisions by their own lights, then providing intellectual cover for their character flaws helps nobody but the intellectuals who may congratulate themselves for their general beneficence.

Oh, and I probably live in "poverty" by official income statistics. Why? Most because I made bad decisions earlier in life.

Santiago writes:
I don't know about most Americans, but I'm less sympathetic to single women with children than just about any other group. It's one thing to be a selfish leech. It's quite another thing, in severely dire circumstances, to decide bring a life into the world just so that you won't be lonely, and then ask someone else to foot the bill. It's sick. Single women with children are almost exclusively responsible for the perpetuation of the suffering of the poor. I don't really have much a problem supporting the lazy, as long as they don't reproduce.
and
How is it morally acceptable to punish taxpayers (or taxpayers' children) for the sins of non-taxpayers?

When I read the posts quoted above I can olny think one thing: "People definately lost its capability to be human"
First off in a society, you are not being punished to help the needy it is a responsability because you are part of that society. You don't want to be part odf that society then move to Switzerland, or better yet commit suicide. You are born and you are alive and from those two simple facts you have responsibilities. If you are an American then you have to abide by Smerican laws if you are Swedish and live in Sweden then by Swedish laws, you did not choose to be born where you were born but that doesn't matter still you have responsibilities to the state. You did not decide in to what society you wanted to be born, well it doesn't matter society functions as a whole and not as individuals. You for the simple fact that you are in a society, you have to participate in such society, if not, find a society you want and move there, if you can't, well pooooh, it doesn't you are still part of that society.

As for women being the ones that are the sole responsible for having a child, that is something that can not be argumented, since it requires the cell of a male and the cell of a female to produce a child. Without the father, there can not be a child, is that simple. Equal responsibility.

The truth is that a major percentage of rich people are more morally reprehensible for their behavior than the poor. Most of the rich people I know, and I know a lot from all parts of the world, are very corrupt. In the US they "lobby" or give money under the table, that is a fact. The richer you are, the more corrupt things you have to do to stay that way r get richer, very few are the exception. Do the math, very few people are rich and even less are rich and honest. Bad Behavior? Jajaja it has to be a joke, most of the poor I know are hard working and honest people, that don't own a single cent that they heven't earned through their sweat. Of course there are the bad apples but those are the least.

The underlining truth is that the richer you are the less concerned by your fellow man you become and maximize profits, cheat, lie and steal on the expense of the less fortunate. The higher you are up the ladder the less you see the bottom. I try to pay very competitive salaries to the people that work for me, because it is just and it is smart to do so. I also don't follow the game of rising prices in order to meat my own profit goals. I prefer to have good workers in good conditions and be fair in my pricing that buying a 300K watch, I don't mind that I live very well and not excessively well. How many people can say that? Social responsibility as well as fairness, the companies not only exist for stock holders but also for workers. Without workers, there is no enterprise and with out capital and leadership there is no enterprise either, and both have to be fair, but I can honestly say that many companies out there pay very bad wages and expect a lot from single mothers and people a lot of other kind of people that do not fit the wanted standards. You want premium workers then pay premium wages that have to be well above the industry standard and don't expect to have the same ratio of profit, sacrifice a little for the well being of society, be responsible

I am rich and got that way by 1.- hard work, 2.- luck, 3.- knowing the right people and 4.- A little vision. Of all my friends, especially those that work in government, I can safely say I amd the most honest and the least, those who work in government, specially the high grade politicians.

W.E. Heasley writes:

Interesting exchange.

The odd item is the thirty two times Mr. Dickens used the terms “I” or “I’m” in his essay. Hence not sure if the essay was about the subject welfare -or- the subject Bill Dickens.

Alastair J writes:

Discussions like this often appears to imply a contradiction between the following two statements which, I think, most discussants would agree are not actually in contradiction:

A. Bad behaviour is a major cause of poverty.

B. Broad social factors affect poverty, and these factors vary across societies (in time and place).

While in their rhetoric some ideologues speak as though it's either one or the other, surely this is not the case.

Pretty much no matter what, it's always going to be good advice for the poor (and everyone else) to improve their behaviour; and we can see the truth of this reflected in a range of evidence, such as the superior performance of certain immigrant groups over locals - like the Chinese in various places outside China. But it's also true that the societies in which people live broadly affect poverty, and this seems equally undeniable; the debate turns on the etiology involved and the weight of the various factors.

I suppose what Bryan and other libertarians and conservatives want is a re-balancing: greater significance placed on the role of individual conduct, with the policy changes this implies - i.e. less safety net and more market freedom. The danger in this position is to emphasise reducing the safety net over increasing the poor's freedom to work, move countries, trade, start businesses, and keep the money they make. This is the mistake typical of vulgar libertarians and most conservatives, it seems.

RickC writes:

Most of what I had to say about this has been well said above. My own experience with family members and other people I have known who live lives of chronic "poverty" in the U.S. points to the obvious link between behavior and bad outcomes.

When I read arguements like Dicken's my reaction is always who am I going to believe, Dickens or all my experience in the real world that refutes his arguements?

Nice try BillP, but can you explain how Mum spending the money on cigs, drugs, liquor, lotto tickets or the latest in a long line of boyfriends is going to do the children any good? Try to explain your feelings to my wife, the pharmacist, who has argued with the single mom about the mom's decision to pass on the meds for her sick kid due to the two dollar co-pay because she just had to buy her two packs of cigarettes. Just one of dozens of hard to believe true stories from the front lines.

Matt writes:

It's fun how people answer the words they want to answer/are in their heads, not the ones that are in front of them! I think it's fun.

Meanwhile, Dickens is actually working along the 'luck egalitarian' model Lee Kelly, for example, seems to think he's ignoring. The question you mostly aren't asking is why - the answer seems mostly to be 'because'. WHY aren't people conscientious? WHY do they make poor decisions? WHY do they have character flaws? Moral reasoning and two dollars will buy you a very bad cup of coffee.

If in your model, the thought process stops at 'some people have low competence and make bad decisions', sure, abolish welfare systems. It still isn't clear what you're punishing (quite punitively, in some cases, since such a punishment could likely be fatal) FOR. Does the presence of extreme poverty cause less recidivism in the form of good decision making and higher competence? Most people making opposing arguments have in fact made the opposite argument, that the presence of poverty around them made them LESS likely to do so. (and any differences being attributed to 'inner strength' and good role models.)

So...

newsouthzach writes:
Oh, and I probably live in "poverty" by official income statistics. Why? Most because I made bad decisions earlier in life.

I can almost guarantee that you would know if you lived below the poverty line. We're talking about $22,000 for a family of four. Not a lot of walking-around money there.

pyroseed13 writes:

"Most of the welfare spending supports families with young children or the disabled. I can appreciate your desire not to support undeserving, non-disabled adults. I can't see how you justify punishing innocent children for the sins of their parents. Did they somehow offend you by choosing to be born to disfunctional families?"

This is where I struggle as a libertarian, and I would be interested in hearing Bryan's response to this. Bryan likes to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, so would he support government assistance for the deserving poor?

Bill P writes:

Sorry, RickC, I can't share your holy rage against all welfare Moms and their kids.

I'll grant you and your wife the pharmacist that some welfare Moms smoke or use drugs, and some subset of them will support their habits before buying their kids' medicine. In many other cases Mom won't have those vices, but instead is just too scatter-brained to keep a job or doesn't have other reliable caregivers to help with the kids.

Your wife won't have a horror story to share with you about the Mom in my second example, so you can both pretend that pitiable welfare recipients simply don't exist. But the kids of Mom Two may still be living on the street and hungry if their family can't get any help. And even in the repellant case of the Mom your wife describes, the kids are still more likely to get food and medicine if the family gets nutrition assistance and TANF than if it doesn't.

Along with Bill Dickens, I'm willing to accept a leaky bucket that gets some aid to the innocent kids of both kinds of welfare Moms. You'd apparently rather see the kids of both kinds of families be malnourished in order to not reward repellant Mom One. It's certainly your right to feel that way, but don't expect all of us to bow down to your impeccable logic.

Bryan, have you considered co-authoring the book with Bill Dickens? Perhaps, For and Against Blaming the Poor? Although this would increase the complexity of writing the book, I think it may increase it's readership, since many will likely dismiss the book out-of-hand otherwise.

I dont buy it. When my wife was using Wic and Medicaid, the people see saw waiting to get the benifits were defenitely undeserving. Likewise, the government workers encouraged people to game the system. My wife even qualified for these programs after her and I were legally married and my income became the family income. Another story, once the girl in front of me in designer jeans and a expensive purse pulled out a WIC card, ACK!

Likewise, my aunt who is a nurse has no good news to report about Medicaid people gaming the system, knowing all the loopholes, and scamming. They might not work to make money to support themselves, but they sure work hard to know how to get free stuff.

Seth writes:

Three questions:

Has Dickens taken a course in logic?
Did he pass?
Does he know what the word 'fallacy' means?


Sieben writes:

@Eclair

"@ sieban:"

Sieben*

"Do you doubt the honesty of his claims"

Like most statements in the political arena, I am sure they are technically true, but misleading in some important way.

Like, he claims he worked under the Clinton white house. Okay. That implies that he had a very prestigious and important position and worked intimately with the administration. But it would also be technically true if he had a completely mundane paper pushing job in some bureaucracy. He could opt to describe himself using his JOB TITLE, but no. He worked under the CLINTON WHITE HOUSE. Dang bro.

How prestigious can his position be if he's spending his time personally meeting with single moms?

"You seem ready to dismiss his arguments out of hand, yet offer no reasoning for doing so (thus far) outside of unsupported personal suspicion"

No. I offered reasoning. You just didn't read my post.

"You may also wish to reconsider your accusation of a straw man argument in light of one of your own remarks: "Yeah like, if you might be homeless tomorrow, you might get a job even if it hurts your macho tough-guy ego." You more or less personified his supposedly-inaccurate perception of a right-wing ideologue."

It's not a straw man. I'm not saying that's his argument. I'm saying that his discourse on emotional decision making can easily go the other way and hurt his case.

Master of None writes:

I am impressed that Bryan posted the whole response here - kudos to him.

However, Mr. Caplan's views, and perhaps more particularly that he has taken such forceful views without undertaking any primary research on the matter, are disturbing.

This makes me question the value of his work on parenthood as well, which I had previously found very compelling.

Hopefully Mr. Caplan will conduct some more diligence of how poverty really happens in the US, and abroad. For me, the book "Poor Economics" was an eye-opener, and I would recommend it to anyone who thinks he understands poverty from the outside.

RickC writes:

Bill P,

Both you and Dickens misunderstand. As Bastiat wrote a long time ago, I say I'm against the state being involved in x and you say I'm against x. Not true at all. Your state run leaky bucket creates all sorts of pathologies at both personal and public levels because the incentives it creates are perverse.

My own experience with poor people and I have extensive, real world experience not some abstract, touchy-feely but distant concern for the poor has taught me that you cannot divorce charity from the local. There are indeed deserving as well as undeserving (not PC but true) poor and the fact is that government, especially at the Federal level, has no way of distinguishing between the two in any effective way, and from what I've observed no real interest in doing it anyway. Can't buy votes thinking like that. This was the reality I was pointing to in my above comment. It has nothing to do with holy rage against anyone just a view unclouded by emotion and without a need to establish bonafides as a caring (read bending others to my will) person.

pyroseed13,

Not speaking for Bryan here but I believe you are suffering from the same assumptions as Dickens and BillP, as well as a few others here. The assumption being that the state (government) is the only avenue available for getting needed aid to the deserving poor. That's a position, at least to me, that seems to hold our society and people in general in very low esteem. It implies that really there are only a few good people who care for the poor and these few, these caring, altruistic few must then use the force of government to make the rest of us help the poor. It ends up pitting one form of morality against another.

Do I have the right, as a human being to choose not to help someone I find underserving or even deserving even if that entails suffering on their part or does their need trump my right to self determination and empower others to enslave me to their cause? And will my enslavement to this cause actually improve the lot of the needy or exacerbate their situation? My own experience points to the latter especially in the long term.

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi Eclair

You write:

Even those of us who value the ethic of personal liberty above all others must come to terms with what I see as the core of Mr. Dickens' argument: that those being helped by government assistance programs are generally the victims of unfortunate circumstances, and as such are worthy of our charity.

How does Mr. Dickens, and everyone who supports federal government assistance to the victims of unfortunate circumstances, come to terms with the argument that such federal government assistance is a violation of U.S. law?

1) Does he, and supporters of federal government assistance to victims of unfortunate circumstances, agree that it is a violation of U.S. law (the Constitution), and support such assistance even though it is a violation of the law?, or

2) Does he, and supporters of federal government assistance to victims of unfortunate circumstances, think that James Madison ("Father fo the Constitution"), Davy Crockett ("King of the Wild Frontier" ;-)), Franklin Pierce, Grover Cleveland, and others were simply wrong when they asserted that federal charity was a violation of the Constitution?

And *if* they choose argument #2, can they point to the part of the Constitution that authorizes federal support to victims of unfortunate circumstances?

Mark Bahner writes:
I think the thing that bothers me about Bill Dickens' comments the most is that he writes as if private charity doesn't exist. You can help the poor without relying on the coercive power of government.

Something that bothers me is that no one seems to be considering that state and local governments exist.

It is a violation of U.S. law (the Constitution) for the federal government to give aid to victims of unfortunate circumstances. It is *not* a violation of federal law for state and local governments to do so.

The people who wrote the Constitution understood very clearly that state and local governments had many powers that were not granted to the federal government. If the federal government followed the law, we would have 50 state governments (and many more local governments) with varying levels of payments to victims of unfortunate circumstances, and we could see what worked best.

Bill P writes:

RickC, I started my original comment by saying that those on the other side have many good points, but that they were avoiding the hardest issue of innocent kids. Your initial response basically dismissed me as an idiot for not realizing that some of these funds go to cigarettes and not kids. I took offense at that, and questioned your values.

You claim all kinds of personal knowledge, and I of course can't evaluate this. I spent years working at the California Dept. of Social Services, but not directly with recipients. I heard plenty of anecdotes supporting both sides. I just want something to be there for the kids.

People seem to settle on a welfare stereotype, then see everything with incredible clarity through that lens. Bill Dickens talks knowingly about overwhelming proportions of pitiable welfare moms, while anti-welfare commenters talk knowingly of awful ones. Most real-life welfare Moms are in a gray area where their virtue depends on one's point of view.

This comment thread amounts to people on each side insulting the other side for not seeing what's perfectly clear to them. Reading this is just depressing. Nobody listens, everyone (and I'm not exactly innocent here) spouts their prejudices as pure fact and questions their opponents' motives.

While I applaud Bryan for posting all of Dickens' points here, it's probably a complete waste of effort. No opinions are changed at all.

Whoever wins this politically-motivated slime fest, I just hope the kids come out okay.

Russ Nelson writes:

I think that what most people are missing is that Bryan is not against charity; not against helping the poor; not against helping children even though their parents have made mistakes.

He is against *forcing* people to do these things. I am, too, for the simple reason that people do MORE of something good if you don't force them to do it.

Mark Bahner writes:
I think the thing that bothers me about Bill Dickens' comments the most is that he writes as if private charity doesn't exist. You can help the poor without relying on the coercive power of government.

Something that bothers me is that no one seems to be considering that state and local governments exist.

It is a violation of U.S. law (the Constitution) for the federal government to give aid to victims of unfortunate circumstances. It is *not* a violation of federal law for state and local governments to do so.

The people who wrote the Constitution understood very clearly that state and local governments had many powers that were not granted to the federal government. If the federal government followed the law, we would have 50 state governments (and many more local governments) with varying levels of payments to victims of unfortunate circumstances, and we could see what worked best.

egd writes:

Hi Santiago. I notice you've asserted that I've lost the "capability to be human" and should either move to Switzerland or kill myself because I questioned Mr. Dickens' moral position.

You haven't addressed my question, even if your comment was in response to mine. Mr. Dickens asserts it is punishment to take money from people (poor children). Is it not punishment to take money from other people (taxpayers)? If not, why not? If it is punishment, how is it excused?

Saying "it is a responsibility because you are part of that society" doesn't resolve the above questions. Why is it a responsibility of members of society to suffer to provide for others? Why should someone who had no input be forced to bear the cost of bad decision making?

Finally, I appreciate that, although a "major percentage of rich people" are "morally reprehensible" and "less concerned for their fellow man" you've managed to rise above and are the most honest person of all your friends.

Unfortunately, I can't say that myself. I am neither rich nor am I the most honest of all my friends. Myself, I seek out honest friends so I have a good example to aspire towards. I believe that surrounding yourself with dishonest people tends to lower one's own standards as to what is morally acceptable. YMMV.

Jeremy writes:

"Part of my project is to provide intellectual foundations for what I perceive as Americans' justified frustration with welfare recipients."

Be careful, Bryan, and remember your Bastiat.

Jonathan Bechtel writes:

Brian's argument seems to be that the poor are poor mostly because of their behavior. Bill seems to agree, but wants to emphasize that we shouldn't hold it against them because of difficult circumstances.

I'm favorable towards Bill's moral sensibilities, but I think his observations are more useful as a diagnosis than a prescription.

I'm not sure why his arguments don't lead to outrage at minimum wage laws, lack of school choice, occupational licensing, rent controls, land use restrictions, or even student loans as unjust policies that hold the poor back.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

There are certainly external factors that contribute to poverty including racism (more latent than explicit these days), lack of social capital, and simple lack of knowledge regarding how to better oneself (what kind of college to go to, major to have, etc.)

However I also subscribe to the idea that executive function is the primary issue in poverty (of non-recent immigrants anyway). There have been some studies to investigate ways to enhance executive function in children, it would be interesting to see if some kind of intervention could enhance executive function in adults:

http://www.cec.sped.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&CONTENTID=14463

"While definitions vary, EF generally refers to the cognitive processes that enable individuals to engage in goal-directed or problem-solving behaviors. Thus, EF may include goal setting or identifying a problem, developing a plan, the ability to execute the plan, flexibility, attention and memory systems to guide the individual (e.g., working memory), and evaluation or self-monitoring."

DOI: 10.1126/science.1204529

"Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old"

pyroseed13 writes:

"I suppose what Bryan and other libertarians and conservatives want is a re-balancing: greater significance placed on the role of individual conduct, with the policy changes this implies - i.e. less safety net and more market freedom. The danger in this position is to emphasise reducing the safety net over increasing the poor's freedom to work, move countries, trade, start businesses, and keep the money they make."

"I'm not sure why [Bill'] arguments don't lead to outrage at minimum wage laws, lack of school choice, occupational licensing, rent controls, land use restrictions, or even student loans as unjust policies that hold the poor back."

This sort of indicates my problem with Bryan's analysis. While I do think irresponsible behavior contributes to their poverty, I think there are a host of other policies, most of which have been implemented by liberals, that prevent them from at least reaching the middle class. Bad institutions are the primary culprit.

@RickC I agree that private charity can be helpful because it is much better at distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor. But I worry that there may be a collective action problem here.

Sieben writes:

Even if you think there are some government policies that help create more poor people, it can still be their fault. You don't have to take an ultra low interest rate loan for a house you can't afford.

Randy writes:

Questions for those who value the welfare state;

Do you perceive a connection between your support for problematic behavior and the growing problems of incarceration, substance abuse, and declining work ethic? If you do not blame your support programs for these problems, who or what do you blame? How do you imagine that your welfare state can survive if these problems are allowed to grow unchecked? That is, who will pay the taxes that support the programs when a significant percentage of the population is a beneficiary of the programs? If you imagine that Bryan's proposed soloution is "harsh", what solutions would you present that are less "harsh"?

Floccina writes:
However, the cost of housing has gone up so that someone making $20k a year isn't going to be able to live in the same sort of neighborhood that a working class person in the 50s and 60s could afford.

Neighborhoods are bad because poor people live in them and have bad habits. For a counter example my son's dorm room at UCF last year was like a prison cell but it was quite a great place to live. We know a "poor" part of town by the litter and graffiti more than buy the lack of things.

The other big item is that if that person wants his kids to have any chance to do better than him (something the people in the 50s and 60s could basically take for granted) he'll have to send them to college at huge costs.

What! To have any chance to do better than a poor person you need college!

Mothers can work for sure, but first before and after school child care (let alone full day care for children who aren't in school yet) costs about $6k per year per child - there goes mom's income.

I used to work with a few single mothers, people most trade off on child care.

Also, working mothers end up having to spend a lot more on prepared foods and dinning out.

Not really true, there are health nutritious foods that are cheap and can be eaten raw or are precooked.

RickC writes:

Bill P,

I haven't read the comments here from either side as being mostly about insulting each other just folks expressing their opinions. You may have noticed that I don't deal in abstractions (stereotypes) much because they seem to muddle up the subject to hand. You'll also notice I offered a concrete example in my first comment and believe me if space provided I could go on all day.

I grew in poverty, surrounded by others in poverty and still have family mired in it. On top of that the community I grew up in provides countless real world examples to support my thesis. I also spent two years as a volunteer working with at-risk kids in Florida which included mentoring several kids from single mother homes (don't get me started on the behaviors I witnessed). As I mentioned before my wife works in a field that brings her into contact daily with people from across the spectrum and her observations and experiences have led her to be more of a cynic than I might ever become. Just let me say that, based on our combined experiences, there are multitudes more people gaming the system than you could ever imagine. That was the point I intended but if I came across negatively in that first comment then I'm sorry. By the way, you did a pretty good job of flinging disparaging comments yourself. "Holy rage," seriously?

You seem to have passed over my follow up comment and rather then go over old ground I'll just let it stand.

pyroseed 13,

The truth is we find ourselves in a much worse situation today because of government action over the last 50 or so years. Many of the private charities, associations and organizations that existed prior to the slow takeover of charitable functions by government are gone. My own take on this is that this is no accident. It provides supporters of government aid an easy argument for not dismantling the system as it now stands. As far as getting help to the poor being a collective action problem, shouldn't the question be, "So the only answer is to give the government the power to force (backed up violence) me and my fellow citizens to give to a government run charity?" I hate to sound overly simplistic but a couple of people already pointed out above, as did James Madison when asked, that there is no place in the Constitution for this action. Wonder why?

Thomas Sewell writes:
Bill P: I just want something to be there for the kids.

I don't believe anyone is suggesting that you shouldn't be able to take all your possessions if you want and give them to whichever kids you feel the need to be there for.

No one is arguing for not having any solution at all, they're arguing about what the best solution is. That's been pointed out to you in past comments by others.

Can you picture a solution where private organizations funded by voluntary donations choose who they believe to be worthy of their resources? There are several groups that are able to take care of their own that way already, even with competition from government welfare.

Surely there are enough charitable people in the USA to fund the deserving kids you're so concerned about? After all, you're willing, aren't you? Do you think you are alone in that?

Is the best solution a government one, involving forcible redistribution, bureaucratic inefficiencies and political (one-side-wins-and-chooses-for-all) style decision and rule making?


The argument you are fighting is "There is a better way to make sure we have less poor and take care of those that deserve it.", not the straw man argument of "No one should help anyone."

I don't read anyone making that second argument, but that seems to be the argument most of the "progressive" commentators argue against.

Peter writes:

Nothing to add but I've always felt the real reason welfare exists was hit upon in this statement "Another thing to consider is what people would be doing in the absence of a transfer program." and then it went another direction. I'm a firm beliver, though have no evidence, welfare is, and always has been, about keeping social unrest at minimal levels given actual unrest costs would dwarf welfare.

Bryan Willman writes:

The entire nature of this debate is in the weeds.

It is not about, and will never be about, how deserving or undeserving the unlucky children of the poor are.

The total amount of economic energy (GDP) that government can extract is finite. Trying to extract more just shrinks the pie. A very large part of what government extracts will per force be spent on the general population (SS and medicare.)

So, *regardless of merit* the funds available for "welfare" are and will be forever limited.

Blaming "right wing" folks for misdescribing a government program he helped set up is rather self serving. But worse, it misses some much deeper issues for society - society can only tolerate a certain level of "free riding". So over the long term, society will only provide a constrained pool of resources for "welfare".
(See the slow and painful changes in Europe now...)

The substantive question is NOT "who to blame" the only real question is "what processes will actually work to divert people from these dead ends?"

Carl writes:

I don't think association with poor people on a personal level has made me believe that they are not at fault for their situation. I have many family members who are poor, and I grew up in an area with a lot of poor people. One thing that they tend to have in common is that they pass up a lot of opportunities for advancement. A few of us have pointed out opportunities to some of my family members to get good jobs and make good money, and even offered to help them pursue these opportunities, but they just won't do it. They have other things they want to do, and they don't want to put in the effort. Several have started training programs for in-demand fields, but none has actually finished one. I know there are exceptions, but in so many cases people are poor because they knowingly pass up opportunities. Some of my friends and family members have ended up in welfare programs, but others are living with their parents or siblings into their 40s and 50s.

Brian Tracey writes:

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Eclair writes:

@ Seiben* (sorry about the misspelling)

Like most statements in the political arena, I am sure they are technically true, but misleading in some important way.
Yet you do not make the same assumptions and arguments in regards to Bryan's post, which you also happen to agree with. We also seem to be back to assuming that Mr. Dickens is misleading us on the specifics of his experience simply because he submitted this piece. That does not make sense. Also, a google search shows that he worked as a senior economist on the CEA.

@ Mark Bahner

How does Mr. Dickens, and everyone who supports federal government assistance to the victims of unfortunate circumstances, come to terms with the argument that such federal government assistance is a violation of U.S. law?

While this issue can certainly be debated in a scholarly sense, the Supreme court has ruled on the Welfare Clause multiple times, overturning Madison's interpretation. I will not speak for Mr. Dickens, but this seems to be enough justification for most. I include myself in this lot, though I am in no way qualified to seriously opine on constitutional law. :)

Thomas Sewell wrote:

Surely there are enough charitable people in the USA to fund the deserving kids you're so concerned about? After all, you're willing, aren't you? Do you think you are alone in that?

That would be nice, but even with our current regimen of anti-poverty programs added on top of all the voluntary charity in the US, there are still starving kids out there who could be helped. I do not think that this makes us monsters, but rather human beings; all of whom inhabit the vast grey expanse between an ethical black and white. When judging one another, as well as ourselves, I feel that we must try to keep this in mind. I am not certain that we should show any less compassion to those who suffer from the pathologies that lead to poor choices. As a society, we use personal responsibility as metric to determine which among our poor will receive aid, but let us not confuse a practical measure with a perfect one. Let us not pretend that those found wanting suffer any less because of it. We author our own choices, but we are not ourselves gods. All those who suffer are victims, even if the agency at fault is their own.

HispanicPundit writes:

As someone who grew up in one of the poorest areas in the United States, I would argue that Caplan's perception of the poor is a lot more realistic than Dickens.

This is why immigrants, many of my aunts and uncles, do FAR better in the United States than the native poor. And this despite much lower levels of education, a language barrier, and cultural differences. Simply going to work and working hard, over time, pays huge dividends over time. My uncles who are gardeners, window tinters, and mechanics testify to this everyday.

Addison Thiel writes:

What I find funny is how he COMPLETELY ignores one of the biggest reasons to remove this "leaky bucket"

"If people are poor because they're behaving irresponsibly, they should be far down our queue of people to help - if they belong on the queue at all."

Yes, MAYBE after all the deserving poor who didn't make all these terrible choices are helped, we can think about helping these other impulsive people. He avoids this because it is obvious that then there should be zero support for most poor americans.

Which brings me to my next point, he complains that Bryan is off base saying IQ is part of the reason people are poor. The problem is that anyone who is not mentally retarded is capable of making, or learning to make the right decisions and sacrifices required to support their family. He admits the poor are full of remorse and know what they need to do differently. They clearly just don't WANT to do it bad enough. This makes them undeserving. If they have no other options (such as welfare), it is obvious they will.

Let's see how much Bill can contradict himself:

"People know they make bad decisions. They often know when they are making them that they are bad. Telling them that they are being stupid isn't news to them. Find ways to change the system to help them make better decisions and I'm all with you. Take money away from children because their mothers and fathers made bad choices I'm very disappointed. Overlook all the people who are receiving aid not because of bad choices, but bad luck and I'm more than disappointed - I'm angry."

Oh ya...
"I had such BAD LUCK that I never saved a penny in case I lost my job, so now I'm on welfare!"
"SUCH BAD LUCK that I got pregnant by a man who wasn't going to stay with me!"
"SUCH BAD LUCK I didn't try very hard to find a job, and when I did, didn't try hard enough to ever get a promotion or keep from losing it!"

"the vast majority of recipients of government support are in a position where they need it due to bad luck...a system where the government provides insurance against such risks is superior to one in which people are forced to provide for their own security no matter what the cost"

I guess fair and efficient systems are horrible, and people on welfare just had baaaaaaad luck...I'll just quote Bill one more time: "People know they make bad decisions. They often know when they are making them that they are bad."

Apparently you are just "unlucky," and not morally responsible for the decisions you make, even when you know they are wrong.

Just imagine how ludicrous it would be to see a criminal law case where a defendant claimed they were not at fault for a rape they committed, because they were "unlucky" they lacked enough self-control to hold themself back. Just like we would throw that person in prison, we ought to cut off undeserving welfare recipients, and put their children up for adoption if they wont take sufficient care of them.

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