A Double Standard for the Poor?

A Double Standard for the Poor?

In recent years, states have been making efforts to police the behavior of welfare recipients  drug-testing them, trying to stop them from buying steak, etc. Many across the political spectrum (including yours truly) regard these efforts with deep suspicion: Micromanaging the lives of the poor is a dubious endeavor, and in many cases there's little evidence the targeted behaviors are a big problem anyway.

Some on the left, though, are throwing in a more problematic talking point. Here it is in the Washington Post today:

We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this).

True. But we also don't require welfare recipients to farm, show they're making satisfactory academic progress at a participating college, or take out mortgages, which are things we require of people who get the other perks. So the Post's next sentence  "The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor"  isn't quite right. Yes, each aid program has a unique goal and its own set of strings, but they all have strings, and many exist for the sole purpose of encouraging a specific behavior the government likes. Further, many of the Post's examples merely highlight the tradeoffs we face in making the rules stricter — strict rules can save money, but they can also be absurd or expensive to enforce. (For the record, I'd endorse stricter Pell Grant restrictions but not routine prostitution inspections.)

One might plausibly say that, since the goal of welfare is to lift people out of poverty and (ideally) into self-sufficiency, we should make sure welfare recipients aren't doing things that are likely to keep them poor. You might disagree; I tend to as well. But this is not somehow wildly out of step with the measures we take with other government subsidies. It is not unusual for a subsidy to be a reward for a desired behavior  available only to those who do what the government wants, to the government's satisfaction.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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