"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.
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.