If you care about fighting poverty, the best thing you can do is to simply give poor people money. That is the view of some of the smartest, most compassionate people I know, and it explains the new enthusiasm, on the left but also in some quarters on the right, for an unconditional basic income—that is, a cash payment to which all citizens would be entitled, with no strings attached.
On the left, the case for an unconditional basic income rests on the notion that low-end service jobs aren’t the kind of fulfilling and valuable work that we as a society ought to preserve. By providing everyone with a guaranteed minimum income, the supply of workers willing to do such work will dry up. The poor will be liberated, and free to pursue their deeper desires. On the right, the argument is that a basic income would eliminate the need for armies of caseworkers and other bureaucrats who (supposedly) do little more than meddle in the lives of the poor. Anti-poverty programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and housing vouchers would all be thrown on a bonfire, to be replaced by cold hard cash. No more handholding, say conservatives and libertarians who favor a basic income. If we’re going to redistribute, let’s do it in the most straightforward way possible.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, I think that no-strings-attached money is a dangerously bad idea and that it will do far more to undermine poverty-fighting efforts than it will to strengthen them. I also think that meddlesome caseworkers are the unsung heroes of the fight against poverty.
As of yet, there is no national proposal to greatly increase the flow of no-strings-attached money to poor households in the United States, though the idea has been gaining ground among the pundit class of late, amid fears that robots will soon take all of our jobs.
But my hometown, New York City, is on the cusp of a grand experiment to increase the flow of no-strings-attached money to its poor citizens. If past experience is anything to go by, this experiment will end badly.
Under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, New York City dramatically overhauled its approach to fighting poverty. As Robert Doar, who served as commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration under Bloomberg, recounts in a recent article for National Review, the cash-welfare caseload in the five boroughs fell from 1.1 million in 1995 to 347,000 at the end of 2013, when Bloomberg left office. Over the same period, the city experienced a substantial decline in child poverty, from 42 percent in 1994 to 28 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2011, as the lingering after-effects of the Great Recession continued to take their toll. The really encouraging news from the Giuliani-Bloomberg era is that work rates also increased. Among single mothers, for example, the work rate went from 43 percent in 1994 to 63 percent in 2009.
One of the reasons Doar placed such a heavy emphasis on the importance of work rather than, say, training and education programs is that, as he explains, getting real-world work experience is key to helping welfare recipients not only get but also keep jobs over time. Training and education have a place, but they work best as a complement to on-the-job training rather than as a substitute.
But there is a new sheriff in town. New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has installed Steve Banks as Doar’s successor, and Banks, as Heather Mac Donald of City Journal reports, takes a very different approach. Banks and de Blasio are firm believers in training and education programs, and they’ve announced their intention to ease the enforcement of work requirements. They will no longer require that food-stamp applicants provide proof of their housing expenses, nor will they ask able-bodied adults without children to look for work in exchange for food stamps.
Is this a badly needed correction from the bad old days of Bloomberg? It is important to understand that, for better or for worse, the Bloomberg administration was very accommodating when working poor applicants sought to enroll in the food stamp and Medicaid programs. A big part of the reason was simply that the city government didn’t set the eligibility rules for these programs, and the federal and state governments had grown more permissive over time. But it also reflected a public philosophy that the billionaire mayor was never very good at articulating—that those who can work and choose not to do so are different from those who do not.
This is a distinction that advocates of an unconditional basic income see as pernicious and that those who want to ease up on work requirements see as needlessly punitive. But it is a distinction that makes eminent public policy sense. The welfare reformers of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t call for work requirements because they wanted to punish the poor. They did so because of mounting evidence that worklessness in high-poverty neighborhoods contributed to the entrenchment of poverty and to the social isolation of those living in welfare-dependent households. Drawing welfare recipients into the workforce was seen as the best way to get them on the ladder to upward mobility. Despite massive shifts in the economy that have been particularly hard on less-skilled adults, work requirements have been a success by and large. Meanwhile, experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by the federal government found that a no-strings-attached basic income reduced work effort and encouraged marital breakup. Given what we’ve learned about the consequences of family breakdown for children, and particularly for male children, in the years since, this is nothing to scoff at.
Moreover, whatever their practical effects, work requirements are central to the moral legitimacy of poverty-fighting efforts in the United States.
In her essay on “Rethinking Welfare Rights,” Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, identified a deep-seated, widely held set of beliefs among Americans about welfare. While most Americans accept the idea that we as a society have a shared responsibility for the well-being of the poor, they also differentiate between those who deserve help and those who don’t. Those who deserve help are those who make an effort to support themselves and their families to the extent they can. Many people simply can’t earn enough to support themselves by dint of disability, limited skills, or a lack of the community ties that enable one to identify and pursue economic opportunities.
And so the role of government, according to Wax, is to help close the gap between what people can earn by doing their best to provide for themselves and what they need to lead decent lives. This gap is real, and there is a distinct possibility that it will grow as our economy and society continue to evolve. To protect programs that close this gap, and to grow them if necessary, it is vitally important that welfare disbursements are perceived as fair. In the long run, those who choose to work will not support welfare programs that appear to offer a better deal to those who do not, nor should they be expected to do so. The failure to enforce work requirements thus undermines the legitimacy of welfare, and it endangers the good that welfare can do.
This notion of “conditional reciprocity” is particularly important in diverse societies. A number of scholars, including the economists Edward Glaeser and Alberto Alesina, have found that more diverse societies are less likely to support high levels of social spending than more homogeneous societies. But more recently, Bo Rothstein, a Swedish political scientist and defender of the welfare state, has found that what really undermines social solidarity and social trust is not diversity per se, but rather the perception that public authorities are corrupt, dishonest, discriminatory, and partial as opposed to clean, impartial, and honest. One of the reasons the Danish welfare state enjoys such widespread support, for instance, isn’t just Denmark’s famous ethnic homogeneity: It’s also that Danish work requirements are extremely strict by international standards, and they’ve grown tighter over time. Unemployed Danes must demonstrate their “labor market availability” by searching for jobs, taking jobs at local job centers, and taking part in so-called activation programs run by hard-nosed caseworkers. The Danish state is indeed generous, but its generosity comes with strings attached, and that’s how Danish voters like it. We could learn a thing or two from them.
There is far more to say about how we can fix America’s social welfare programs. But before we can expand them or shrink them or modernize them, we must first ensure that they rest on a solid moral foundation. And that, ultimately, is what work requirements are all about.