Reply to Bill Dickens on Poverty: Part 1
By Bryan Caplan
Since Bill Dickens’ last reply to me is essay-length, my plan is to write a series of relatively short replies, and spread them out over the next month. Here’s Part 1. By default, Bill’s in blockquotes, I’m not.
You subscribe to two central right-wing memes:
government coddles the poor and won’t make them face the tough choices everyone
else does, and welfare recipients are overwhelmingly lazy and undeserving.
“Overwhelmingly lazy” is simultaneously too strong and too narrow. I do think that the average welfare recipient is much lazier than the average non-welfare recipient. But this is just a special case of a more general criticism: the average welfare recipient is much more irresponsible than the average non-welfare recipient.
To see where I’m coming from, consider this passage from the excellent Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage:
Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or more education. Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to go along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.
Complaints like these are standard in the ethnographic literature. The story’s more psychologically complex than pure “laziness.” But the evidence supports a strong version of the “right-wing memes” your criticize.
Anyone with firsthand experience dealing with a wide range of the poor or those
receiving government assistant (with the later being only a small subset of the
former) knows these two things to be false.
I’d say rather that people with this first-hand experience eschew words like “irresponsible.” But that is the correct English word for what ethnographies like Promises I Can Keep reveal.
Further, I think your view on the
causes of poverty and your view of the culpability of the impoverished for
their circumstances are internally contradictory.
My full view is that the First World poor have a long list of problems. Some – like low IQ – aren’t really their fault. Others – like irresponsible behavior – are entirely their fault. Doesn’t this mean that their poverty is only partially their fault? Not really. If they acted responsibly, they probably wouldn’t be poor despite their other disadvantages. That is sufficient for a person to deserve his fate.
By analogy, consider a low-IQ, lazy student. Both traits hurt his classroom performance. However, if he did his homework, he would pass your class. I say if he doesn’t do his homework, his failure in your class is entirely his fault.
Even Charles Murray
acknowledged that beliefs in both the importance of cognitive ability and its
genetic basis is grounds for progressive taxation. It is no leap at all to the
notion that the poor are not culpable for their circumstances.
Murray’s Rawlsian outlook is one of the main perspectives my poverty book will attack. You know as well as I do that high heritability does not logically imply immutability, so why do you repeat Murray’s argument here? Furthermore, the mere fact that someone is not culpable for his circumstances hardly implies that total strangers are culpable.
Let’s start with the absurd notion that better behavior is a “…neglected
remedy…” Neglected by whom? Certainly not the poor themselves.
“Certainly”? The mere fact that the poor engaged in irresponsible behavior shows that they previously “neglected” the remedy of better behavior. The mere fact that the poor continue to engage in irresponsible behavior shows that they currently “neglect” the remedy of better behavior. “Neglecting X” means “paying insufficient attention to X,” not “being unaware of X’s existence.”
When I worked on
Clinton’s welfare reform taskforce I was struck by a number of things, but one
thought that would never have occurred to me was that instructing people in the
consequences of bad behavior would have the slightest impact on their
Which is precisely the reaction you should expect when you offer wise advice to irresponsible people.
I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare
recipients when I was working on the reform (and lots more people with
precarious lives when interviewing people for a number of labor market
projects). Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or
a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they
should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to
support their family, they know it would be better if their children’s father
was there to help support their kids.
I don’t think they’re sorry for their behavior. I think they’re sorry they’re experiencing the predictable consequences of their behavior. I see them the same way I’d see a serial adulterer enduring a hellish divorce: “Sure you’re sorry. Sorry you got caught! Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.”
There is no shortage of hectoring from
society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media. Consider that even
before the passage of TANF most women on welfare worked at least some during every
year (on or off the books). Most welfare mothers are not drug abusers or
alcoholics (when they have been tested only a tiny fraction fail).
My immediate question is: How long do drugs and alcohol stay in their systems? Promises I Can Keep explains that a lot of poor women permanently quit alcohol and drug abuse after getting pregnant. But prior substance abuse still seemed to be an important cause of their present woes. In any case, there’s little question that most welfare mothers repeatedly had unprotected sex when neither they nor their partners were capable of supporting a child.
A lot had
their children with a husband or boyfriend they had hoped to marry.
Quite right. However, they also generally select young, irresponsible, macho men who are plainly unsuitable for marriage or fatherhood.
Bryan, there is one thing I really think you ought to do before you write
this book and that is to spend some time with people who are receiving state
benefits and the wider group of poor who do not receive benefits but remain
poor. If you do I think you will find it very hard to believe that these people
are unaware of the consequences of their actions and that they aren’t,
overwhelmingly, trying to make their lives work.
My whole point is that they engage in irresponsible behavior even though they are “aware of the consequences of their actions.” Indeed, their awareness is what makes their behavior irresponsible!
Hypothetical for Bill: Imagine the two of us spent a few weeks interviewing people on welfare. Can you really imagine that I would ever concede that an alcoholic is “trying to make his life work”? Would I ever concede that a poor woman who repeatedly has unprotected sex with her drug-dealing boyfriend is “trying to make her life work”? You know me too well. I wouldn’t denounce anyone to his face. But once you and I were alone, you can imagine my sarcasm: “Oh they’re trying sooooo hard.”
Maybe I’m wrong to think this way. But it’s not for lack of first-hand experience.