Collateral damage in the war of ideas

"People get on welfare because they are lazy PERIOD" says an anonymous commenter to a Wisconsin newspaper article. Last week the La Crosse Tribune ran an article about welfare reform which provoked the usual hostile sentiments. The commenter went on to complain about left wing "whining from people who are unwilling to work and sit around squirting out babies that decent folks end up paying for." When another commenter wrote about her own experience on welfare and how hard she struggled to escape, she got this response: "I will work hard to help people like you, and I will sit back and let able bodied adults starve if they won’t do their part."

Many Americans believe that poor people cause poverty. A 2001 poll found that almost half of all respondents believed that the biggest cause of poverty today is people not doing enough to help themselves. Calls for increases in income support to non-working families typically make these people angry.They feel as if they are being taken advantage of.

For free market think tanks these beliefs about the causes of poverty represent an opportunity. Most of these think tanks are a solution on the look out for problems to solve. The solution is smaller and more limited government. Public hostility towards welfare can be used to pressure governments into tightening eligibility and making cuts in spending. Think tanks are only too happy to stoke public hostility towards welfare recipients by promoting the idea that poverty is the result of individual choice. For example, the Heritage Foundation argues that the major problem in the United States is not material hardship but ‘behavioural poverty’:

…a breakdown in the values and conduct that lead to the formation of healthy families, stable personalities, and self-sufficiency. This includes eroded work ethic and dependency, lack of educational aspiration and achievement, inability or unwillingness to control one’s children, increased single parenthood and illegitimacy, criminal activity, and drug and alcohol abuse. The core dilemma of the traditional welfare state is that prolific spending intended to alleviate material poverty has led to an increase in behavioral poverty.

In Australia the Centre for Independent Studies imported this harsh rhetoric into Australia with a 2000 monograph on ‘behavioural poverty’ by Lucy Sullivan.

Interestingly, American opinion polls show widespread public support for increases in tax credits for low-income workers, subsidised daycare for children, and more government spending on medical care. Americans seem more than willing to provide support that can’t be construed as a subsidy to idleness and bad behaviour. This is where the real debate lies and where free market think tanks seem to be less comfortable defending their position.

Few people on either the left or right want to see safety nets becoming hammocks. But the serious debate today is not about whether income support programs should include work and participation requirements. Instead, both internationally and in Australia the debate has moved on to whether governments can prevent problems like chronic joblessness by investing in families and communities. According to one theory, these problems can be solved simply by moving welfare reliant parents into paid employment. Others argue that this isn’t enough and that parents and children can benefit when their families and communities receive extra support.

In the US the MDRC say that "Since the passage of federal welfare reform in 1996, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that the success of the reformed system will be judged in large part by whether it improves the lives of low-income children." Researchers there are increasingly looking to early childhood for opportunities to head off problems later in life. The debate has moved on and researchers are now gathering evidence about what works and what doesn’t. That’s why it’s disturbing to read the Centre for Independent Studies’ Peter Saunders claiming that:

…the more [governments] try to strengthen families and communities with new spending programmes or new regulations, the more likely they are to achieve precisely the opposite. Federal and state governments today are spending millions of dollars funding ‘stronger communities’ programmes which employ hundreds of officials and professionals, but the surest way to kill off genuine community activity is to send in bureaucrats, researchers and social workers to help local people organise their lives.

The endnote which promises to back up the claim contains a Ronald Reagan gag but no references to empirical research which might support his case. Recently Saunders seems to have slipped into an evidence-free ranting style more suited to casual blogging than serious think tank work. There is a growing amount of research on the efficacy of family and community interventions.

Think tanks like the CIS are fighting a war of ideas — a war that could end up causing collateral damage. In their struggle against left wing intellectuals, free market think tanks are tempted to use whatever weapons come to hand. Sometimes it’s easier to roll back the state by denigrating welfare recipients than it is to engage with the evidence about what works.

This entry was posted in Politics - international, Politics - national, Society. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
23 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
swio
swio
14 years ago

Its fascinating stuff. More so because its a powerful idea that does not seem to have obvious ways of being implemented as policy. There’s alot of room to try different things out and be innovative.

patrickg
14 years ago

This is just one of the myriad problems with think tanks. They put out publications that claim the legitimacy of journals, without the back-up of peer-review, or frankly, the impetus to make sure their facts are water-tight.

The only people who read the reports in full are journalists and politicians, both far more interested in finding some kind of catchy information that happens to agree with their preconceptions (much like the tanks themsevles), than a real debate about policy.

The publications are then watered-down, and fed to the public, even more distorted and simplified than they already were, with much made of the fact that it comes from a “think tank”, and attached to an aura of legitimacy that is totally unjustified; as if the appellation ‘think-tank’ means anything.

If media and politicans referred to (non-university) think tanks as what they really are – lobby groups – I think they would be far more likely to get the respect they deserve.

skepticlawyer
14 years ago

I can’t speak for any other think-tanks, but the CIS’ Policy is peer-reviewed.

And, I should add, that apart from ‘bad’ Peter Saunders, mutual obligation and the other forms of compulsion visited on welfare recipients are not favoured among libertarians/classical liberals. Yes, welfare payments need to be relatively low to avoid moral hazard. However, punishing people for receiving them, or – even worse – for working part-time to supplement them – is perfidy of the worst sort.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

On balance, I think Don is right that the policy debate now is about what early childhood program delivers. That doesnt mean though that that debate is really going to solve anything unless you seriously believe that the tinkering which is now occurring or that is on the agenda can achieve much. Let’s face it. Serious welfare reform is IMO off the agenda until at least after the next big recession and we’re just going through the motions here.

From the point of view of an academic who has worked in this area for a very long time, the number one problem in discussions is the belief on both extreme sides of politics that there is such a thing as an easy fix. The supposed right in my perception thinks that letting people swim without support is going to help them, whereas its quite likely that the weakest will drown or will become at least as costly in a non-welfare way (crime). The supposed left thinks there are such things as magical training programs, or early childhood interventions that are relatively cheap but will elevate the whole of the bottom to middle class respectability. Cloud cookoo land.

The second biggest problem is that all sides have a point. Its a damned hard problem where no group can claim to be fighting good versus evil: its hard to look at the exploding DSP numbers in Australia (close to 1 million now) and pretend all those on it are the people the program was meant for. Similarly for the half a million lone parents. Where were these in the 60s and 70s? Certainly not on welfare. Its tough not to blame the incentives in the welfare system for that development. Its hard not to see the obvious point that putting more money into helping families at the bottom increases the incentives to be at the bottom and that people will react to those incentives.
By the same token, its hard to pretend that you can just ask the millions at the bottom to all lift themselves by their bootstraps and accept to themselves and the community that they are society’s official losers. You have to be ignorant of human psychology to expect the poor are all going to accept low-paying low-status jobs when there are the much more economically rewarding opportunities of crime, prostitution, outright denial, and church/family welfare option to pursue. Also, if you dont have the talent/looks/intelligence/charm or whatever to sell on the formal market in order to lift yourself up to the middle ranges, should you then just admit defeat and die? Surely not, yet this is the logic of the let-them-swim bandwagon.
At the end of the day, society has to strike a balance between on the one hand not letting those at the bottom become too comfortable and let them drift towards having them despise the hand that feeds them by turning a ‘hand-out’ into ‘a right’, and on the other hand not to allow the bottom to become so destitute, resentful, and without hope that they no longer feel part of the same society. IMHO opinion, Australia at large thinks the current balance is about right and is not worth changing much, apart from the usual symbolic tinkering.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

Don

What is it with this scrutiny of an endnote by Peter Saunders in Policy?
As you well know CIS’ Policy is not meant to be a repository of its scholarship or its institutional views. It has published everyone from Mark Latham to me. I take the implicit view in my recent book review in Policy that global warming exists and something should be done about it. Does that mean the CIS has gone green?

Patrick – see above. When the CIS has a considered position it published them as monographs. Policy is indeed peer reviewed but everyone is welcome to submit articles to it, though you might be unlikely to be published if you are advocating Stalinist or Nazi views.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
14 years ago

Thank you for your post. It is good to see someone taking up strongly the cause of the poor. I agree with most of your comments

patrickg
14 years ago

Fair enough Jason, but I then have to wonder about the peer-review process that lets a line like: “It is costing $490 million between 2004 and 2009, much of which seems to go on administration and

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

How is Peter Saunders’ piece any worse than the typical piece in, say, Eureka Street or the now defunct Independent Monthly or Australian Book Review, Patrick? Or even The Australian Quarterly? How many journals have you read and on what basis do you make this sweeping judgement? Aside from this minor piece of nitpicking by Don? Do give us a list of better journals. It’s of a consistently high standard for a journal which generally doesn’t pay its contributors.

Why condemn the entire journal based on one nitpick by Don and then claim it’s not a left/right thing? Feel free to submit an article yourself and see if you can get it published.

It’s called Policy because it’s a journal about public policy. If you choose to read more into it than that because of the name that’s your business. Personally I take everything I read with scepticism, whether it’s left or right, and whether it claims to be scholarly or not.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

BTW I do think Don is making too much of this as it isn’t even clear from Saunders’ piece alone that he is talking about penalising the poor. His piece is very much a ‘think piece’ on why Kevin Rudd is wrong to claim that capitalism and liberalism is a threat to the family. He would have been better off examining works by Saunders which are directly commenting on the idea that welfare crowds out community, assuming there are any. The Lucy Sullivan piece would also have been a better target for the sort of generalisation which Don is trying to run.

The offending bit that Patrick quotes is an aside which is not even essential to the point of the argument so I see no reason why Saunders is obliged to write a mini-essay on that footnote.

patrickg
14 years ago

Jason,
I’m not trying to defend the honour of every journal that has graced the earth, I am just pointing out that the standard of that particular reference is sub-par, and my own personal experience of writing for peer-review has been that unsupported references are picked up.

Are you saying that Saunders’ reference is acceptable?

I have no idea how many journals I have read – there have been many – and I don’t really see what bearing that has on Saunders’ dodgy referencing, other than to insult my intelligence.

As for ‘condemning the entire journal based on one nitpick’, the onus isn’t on me to trawl through every reference in every issue of Policy. The onus on them is to make sure they’re all right. Your defence is crazy, it’s like a paper that gets its facts wrong arguing that for the criticism to stick, you have to make sure every article gets its facts wrong.

Again: is the reference acceptable? The answer is clearly no.

You said: “It

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Let me, as editor of Policy, clarify some points. I get referee advice on most articles (including the one being discussed) as I want to prevent anything that is factually wrong or improbable going to print. However in a journal like Policy (motto on cover: ideas debate opinion) I am not trying to mimic academic journals that devote most of their space to literature reviews and methodological discussions and conclude with under-theorised correlations. In the passage Don is complaining about, there is a page of argument before it as to why government interventions can be harmful.

And what’s any of this to do with ‘denigrating welfare recipients’? It’s just pointing out that people respond to incentives, and when you make it possible to do nothing lots of people will take that option. (Indeed, isn’t this the kind of argument the left likes? – that people are not intrinsically bad, but social structures send them down the wrong path?)

patrickg
14 years ago

Thanks for the clarification, Andrew.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

What is it with this scrutiny of an endnote by Peter Saunders in Policy?

This is fair question. Saunders is writing a piece of political commentary not an article for a scholarly journal.

The problem I have with Saunders’ remarks is this. Many family and community interventions aim to supplement rather than replace the support of families and communities. There is growing body of empirical evidence about their effectiveness. I don’t think it’s reasonable to dismiss them as ineffective without looking at the evidence from evaluations.

As Paul says, there are a lot of unrealistic expectations out there. For years people on the left argued that training was the best way to move people from welfare to work. But when the evidence from randomised control trials came in, this became a much difficult claim to support. I suspect that there are some early intervention programs that look good in theory but will turn out to be similarly disappointing.

I don’t have a problem with Saunders drawing on Robert Nisbet’s 1950s work on community. Nisbet’s work is interesting and provocative. Where Rudd argues that families and civil society need to be protected by the market, Nisbet would argue that they need to be protected from the state. But at the same time I’d like to see Saunders follow up the theory with an analysis of the empirical evidence.

Let’s not just quote our favourite political thinkers at each other — let’s look at the data.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
14 years ago

And what

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

I think you need to differentiate Peter Saunders’ argument from Lucy Sullivan’s. Lucy Sullivan’s behaviourial poverty argument seems to me to be different from Saunders’ structuralist arguments.

But here is the paradox – what may be *really* construed as ‘denigrating the poor’ can in fact lead to more strongly left wing conclusions. For instance take the controversial Murray Bell Curve argument. If, contrary to those optimistic about ‘early childhood intervention’,there are genetic limits to some individuals’ ability to get by in society because of cognitive limitations that cannot be substantially lifted regardless, then no matter how many carrots and sticks you throw at them, they really cannot help themselves – in which case lifelong unconditional welfare may well be justified. if on the other hand people do respond to incentives, then if all the incentives are thrown at them with little change, whatever poverty that remains may be blameworthy.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

Actually Andrew already answered your question, Bill. Can you read?

It

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

Andrew Leigh posted recently on early childhood cognitive research and its distortion by political process, suggesting that it isn’t likely to prove the magic bullet for equality of opportunity. More generally, I agree with Paul Frijters on this one.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

There are no ‘magic bullets’ in social policy but it is worth looking for programs that can make a difference. In an earlier thread I think Angharad’s comments steered the debate in a useful direction.

http://www.clubtroppo.com.au/2007/04/12/kill-the-poor/#comment-114623

Activists need to avoid falling into the same trap they did in the 1960s. In the US , activists like Michael Harrington were very effective at raising awareness of poverty and disadvantage. But when the Johnson administration decided to act by declaring ‘unconditional war on poverty’ it had little or no idea what to do.

The administration seized on a number of then fashionable approaches, many of which had little impact (although there were some successes). America’s neoconservative movement was born out of this debacle.

I don’t think that we should assume we know how to solve problems of social and economic disadvantage. The problem isn’t just a failure of political will.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Some French study found a very strong correlation between a small increase in (roughly speaking) semi-senior white collar workers in a suburb increasing from >1% to around 5% and a significant decrease in delinquency and joblessness. Unfortunately they didn’t study the correlation between zoning, rent controls and % of semi-senior white collar workers.

That at least presents a possible easier set of policy problems…

Crowlie
14 years ago

I’ve been on a pension for ages… I’m good at ranting and coming up with pseudo science to back up preconceptions and opinions. How do I get a think-tank job? Oh, one problem. I’m female, forty, have three kids and am studying progressive Feminist theology (IOW have a brain & leftist tendencies).

John Humphreys
14 years ago

Not every endnote/footnote is a reference and I don’t see why it needs to be.

John Humphreys
14 years ago

And how does “female, forty, 3 kids, studying feminism” equate with having a brain? Are 45 year old feminists stupid? What about women with 2 kids? Or forty year old men who study feminism?

Your comment certainly fails the “decent human” test by it’s implications and doesn’t really pass the “sensible human” test either. Somehow I find it easy to believe you have leftist tendencies.

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

Your comment certainly fails the decent human test by its implications and doesnt really pass the sensible human test either. Somehow I find it easy to believe you have leftist tendencies.

And what, precisely, are these “decent human” and “sensible human” tests? And why do you find it so easy that someone who fails them should have leftist tendencies?