Money itself does little to tackle many of the root causes of poverty, such as drug addiction and child abuse; unmanaged chronic and mental health problems; family instability; poor financial planning; inability to find, keep or succeed in employment; And so on. An effective poverty reduction policy provides resources which also help to solve these problems and push the recipient to solve them themselves.
A generous cash benefit disconnected from work can also be economically and culturally counterproductive. Work plays an essential role in people’s lives, as a source of purpose, structure and social interaction; a prerequisite for upward mobility and a foundation for family formation and stability. Communities in which dropping out of the workforce is prevalent and widely accepted are not happy; a policy that supports the unemployed is not ultimately the fight against poverty.
A “child allowance” of $ 600 per month for a household with two children may seem simply insufficient to support themselves, but combine with $ 400 in food stamps and a $ 1,000 housing voucher and the case is less. clear. Include about $ 750 per month in Medicaid payments for health care, and total annual household support would reach $ 33,000, including over $ 7,000 in cash.
Beyond the direct economic implications, there are also, if not more, cultural implications. Some rewards of hard work do not come in people’s paychecks, but in the social status and respect that come with fulfilling their obligation to provide for themselves and their families. If the bundle of benefits for non-workers comes close to what workers are expected to provide, those rewards dissipate – no one trusts them – with consequences just as real as a cut in wages.
To be clear, America should provide basic necessities for those who cannot support themselves – we are already trying to do that and we must strive to do better. But using the safety net should not replicate the income associated with productive engagement in society. It should focus on the in-kind benefits for nutrition, housing, etc., related to services aimed at helping people improve their lives.
Universal family benefits combine two ideas best evaluated separately: the supplementary family income credit for working families and unconditional cash for the non-working poor. The former has the prospect of gaining broad bipartisan support and building a pro-family infrastructure. The second is a radical anti-poverty strategy that goes against centuries of American tradition and decades of welfare reform.
By all means, let’s discuss each on their own merits. But don’t insist on packing them together. Holding one hostage against the other is a recipe for political stalemate and political failure.