Here’s a fun internet hot take: Screw work requirements; the federal government should just give lots of cash to poor people, untethered from broader social goals like incentivizing work or child rearing.
There are a lot of reasons this is a fun thing to write. Poverty, of course, really is a moral outrage. Poor people would probably do better if they were just given the money rather than tax credits for having kids or subsidized health care. There’s also strong evidence that something like a basic income program might make the government spend more efficiently, and therefore less overall, than it would in redistributing wealth through social programs and bureaucracy.
The problem with this approach, from the perspective of many Democratic policymakers, is that it tends to be very difficult to build a durable political coalition behind — no matter how popular it is among liberals on Facebook.
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews chronicled in his exhaustive look at the failed legacy of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s, the politics of welfare reform are really, really hard. The thought of giving money to people who aren’t working just isn’t that popular to begin with, and the layering of ugly racial and economic stereotypes on top of that makes it even harder to defend politically.
Dylan’s story provides crucial fodder for the most recent episode of The Weeds — one in which Vox’s Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff delve into the politics and policymaking of welfare reform and how it may play out under a future Democratic administration.
At one point, Matt explains why the liberal cry to simply give direct cash transfers to the poor — while sound, desirable policy — so often crashes into a much more difficult political reality:
When I talk to policymakers on the Democratic side, people who have been involved in a very practical way, they are acutely sensitive to the political differences that from a wonky 50,000-foot view sound really similar.
So money spent on subsidizing child care "promotes work" and the "integration of work" of low-income people into the mainstream. Whereas cash child allowances promotes "non-work" and a divergence between the low-income lifestyle and the middle-class lifestyle.
Similarly, when you’re giving people Medicaid, health coverage, in-kind benefits, you’re "helping them out." Whereas when you’re cutting them a check, you’re "giving them welfare."
It’s strongly believed — by members of the Obama administration, by veterans of the Clinton administration — that this matters enormously to the politics. That if you can give in-kind assistance, particularly to people who are working, that there’s a robust politics around that to which people are generous in mind and spirit. But if you try to give cash to people who aren’t working, then people become mean-spirited and stingy. ...
There’s always been this discomfort with the idea that you might deviate from some kind of normative pattern of social behavior, like get divorced or not have a job, and that the government would help you be a social deviant. And our notion of what would be deviant behavior used to be divorced and is now to be unemployed, and that’s where our politics have been hitting. I think the challenge for liberals who would like to address this is: How do you navigate that?
One thing that’s easy to do for an internet hot take is to say: "We just shouldn’t have these norms. These norms are dumb; let’s just give everyone a check." And that’s great. And one of the things that’s great about the internet is that if 15 percent of people give your hot take the thumbs up button on Facebook, you’ll go viral and it’ll be amazing. But in politics you do need a working majority, and that’s how you get to the work guarantee.
Here are some of the other things that got discussed:
- Dylan Matthews’s magisterial welfare reform explainer
- Dylan’s look at whether welfare programs make poor people lazy (they don't)
- What is a "basic income," and where is it being tried?
- Dylan’s piece on the overlooked ways food stamps really do help alleviate poverty
- At this point we should probably just link to Dylan's entire author page, which you can find even more work about government welfare, effective altruism, and other looks at poverty. Here it is.
- The politics of Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion proposal
- Vox’s coverage of last week’s critical Supreme Court ruling on immigration
- More Vox coverage of that big immigration decision