The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?


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