Two Approaches to Poverty Relief

Today's Policy slate features a piece from James Greiff, a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. In response to liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias, who has argued that food stamps should be replaced by cash assistance, Greiff writes:

Drawbacks to doling out cash are real and fly in the face of the moral component of receiving a government benefit. Aid comes with strings attached as part of the goal of inducing behavior that's deemed socially beneficial. That's why food stamps can't be used to buy tobacco or alcohol. If a cash handout is easier for a store to administer, the same is true for a cash benefit used to buy dope on the street.

Yes, there is an element of paternalism in food stamps. Yet it's hard to justify the government using taxpayer money to subsidize iPhone purchases instead of spending on a necessity such as food. And what about those parents who lack the discipline or willingness to make good decisions? Food stamps prevent them from shifting spending on food for their children to other less-essential goods.

This is a very important element of the poverty-relief debate, and it doesn't seem to be a left-right issue. On the right, the social scientist Charles Murray once suggested, as a replacement for the welfare state, giving all Americans $10,000 a year to spend as they see fit, while the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald had this to say when a program that paid children for good grades failed:

The results buttress the message of welfare reform: the poor need strong paternalism and clear moral guidance. Welfare mothers started working not because it was for the first time in their economic interest to do so, but because welfare bureaucrats made it clear that they were expected to work, according to [poverty scholar Lawrence] Mead. KIPP charter schools succeed with students because they don’t give them a choice about how to behave. ... Though the welfare system has exhausted its leverage over welfare mothers once they go to work, the last hope for turning around underclass behavior may be to convert every inner-city school into a KIPP-type academy with minute-by-minute structure and explicit, nonnegotiable rules and expectations.

Similarly, on the left, many tend to think we should give the poor money and respect the decisions they make regarding how to spend it. But others stress the evidence we have that those in poverty are often poor decisionmakers (which may be caused in part by poverty itself). There seems to be a growing paternalistic streak on the left, especially when it comes to poor parents -- see, for example, the Brookings Institution's recent report on the "parenting gap." The report endorses HIPPY, a program that sends "home visitors from the community" into poor households to "provide[] the parent with the tools and materials that enable the parent to work directly with their child on developmentally appropriate, skill building activities."

Behavior is an important component of poverty, but the policy implications of this fact depend on ideology. Would we rather insist on good behavior as a condition of aid, or avoid the act of social engineering?

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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