Welfare: reducing freedom, increasing independence

Yesterday we talked food stamps and housing.  Now to welfare.  Here I’m going to get even more speculative, but I think my logic is still sound.

Welfare provides cash benefits to the poor, mostly poor mothers and their children.  Obviously, the poor have other needs besides housing and food, such as clothing, transportation, household goods, and school supplies, and one easy way to provide it is to give them cash to spend as they need to.  The problem is, a lot of this money doesn’t go to buy these essential things. It goes to buy alcohol, drugs, and guns.  So here is the big problem area.  Junk food and live-in boyfriends are small potatoes compared to drugs and murder.

How do I know that welfare money is going to pay for these things?  Because addiction and gun violence are disproportionately problems of the poorer segments of the population.  This is no reflection on the poor as a group.  It’s only a sad reflection on what happens to people when they live in poverty.  It’s only logical that some portion of welfare money is going to pay for guns and drugs.

What’s the solution?  Well, the answer lies partially in how easy it was to make the list of the other needs of the poor, such as transportation and school supplies.  If there is only a finite list of things people really need, then why don’t we just give it to them?  How hard would it be to set up a nationwide system like food stamps that would provide the necessities of the poor?  It could be a system of debit cards like the food stamps program now uses.

Local stores would line up in droves to apply to accept the cards.  We could put the power of the Wal-mart distribution chain to work serving the poor.  Instead of welfare funds going to buy cheap liquor, it could go to buy pencils for schoolchildren and new dresses for little girls.

Who are to make a list of what the poor need?   For one, the taxpayers and their representatives, who deserve to get responsible services for their tax dollars.  Ultimately, it will be determined by the responsible public policy community.  What should go on the list?  Let’s be generous: along with notebooks and shoes, we could add toys and fancy dresses if we want.  We may choose to draw the line before expensive shoes, jewelry, and the latest tech gadgets.  Then again, if the best jobs go to those who have computers and gadgets, then how can we deny these?  So some of the choices may not be easy.  I would err on the side of generosity.  The important things to keep off the list are much more obvious: guns, ammunition, drinks over a certain percentage alcohol, pornography, and phone sex lines.  I’m sure that the real policy people can think of several more.

I’m not saying that the poor shouldn’t be able to taste whiskey or see the occasional porn movie.  There could still be very limited cash benefits for the poor to fill in the gaps and provide a little spice in their lives.  But it would be very limited so that they can’t support drug habits or collect an arsenal.  And of course, they could get a job to earn a little extra cash.

Now let’s take this idea a step further.  The border between welfare and work has always been a sticky wicket.  Now with necessities paid for in kind, there is less need to restrict benefits from those who work.  In other words, the usual dilemma over how to provide incentives to get a job and escape welfare would be solved.  By restricting benefits to the sort of value-conscious items that allow one to live but not live well, there is a built-in incentive to get educated, get a job, and get out of the system.  If assistance is in cash, and one gets a job on the side, you can add the earnings to the cash benefit and spend it all as you wish, which is unfair to others who aren’t collecting benefits.  But if the benefits are cheap clothes and pencils, then if you get a job, you probably won’t even bother to use the benefit.

In the extreme, if the list of covered goods is restricted to the bare essentials and the least glamorous items, the program could maybe be self-regulating.  That is, it could be open to all citizens.  Anyone could take the free goods available if they wished.  The only limitation would be how much you wanted to carry out of the store.  But once outside, the items would have no cash value, because anyone could get them the same way.  So they would only have their inherent value of use.  There would be no point in taking anything you couldn’t use.

The idea may be repugnant to some to create a system that would clearly label people as poor by forcing them to wear and use second-class goods.  But the benefits would be extraordinary.  A self-enforcing system would be extremely inexpensive to run, and would be amazingly effective at providing incentive for people to become independent of it.  At the same time, it could provide an abundance of durable if unfashionable merchandise to the truly needy.  By standardizing a limited number of staple goods, they could be manufactured extremely economically by the private sector.  So there would be victories for both liberals and conservatives.

And by limiting the amount of dollars that go into revenue streams for crime or to buy guns, it helps to de-link guns and drugs from the people plagued by them.  As to gun violence in particular, if we can’t find the political will to control guns on the supply side, maybe this policy will help control them on the demand side.  So there is a liberal goal achieved via a conservative means.

This is not a radical approach.  But it takes political will, and I think it will not appeal to those on the far left.  It restricts the freedom of those who are already down and out.  And it probably won’t be popular on the right either, from a business or free-market principled perspective.  As seen with the food stamp program, there are powerful lobbies for letting money be spent on a wide variety of high-profit goods.  There are powerful political reasons something as reasonable and efficient as this hasn’t already been done.

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