Home > Uncategorized > “Ending Welfare As We Know It” and “Zero Tolerance”: Two Bad and Inter-related Ideas That Failed

“Ending Welfare As We Know It” and “Zero Tolerance”: Two Bad and Inter-related Ideas That Failed

Sometimes the NYTimes unwittingly offers two articles on different themes that are ultimately joined at the hip… and today is one of those days. As noted in an earlier post, police chiefs across the country are lifting their voices seeking the repeal of laws that mandate incarceration for mental health and addiction related offenses. Today’s Times also features an article by Eduardo Porter on the “Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor”, an article that provides evidence that contradicts the notion that people who are on welfare become dependent on government handouts, abuse the funds they receive, and engage in immoral behavior. Here’s Porter’s overview of the findings:

Today, almost 20 years after Mr. Clinton signed a law that stopped the federal entitlement to cash assistance for low-income families with children, the argument has solidified into a core tenet influencing social policy not only in the United States but also around the world.

And yet, to a significant degree, it is wrong. Actual experience, from the richest country in the world to some of the poorest places on the planet, suggests that cash assistance can be of enormous help for the poor. And freeing them from what President Ronald Reagan memorably termed the “spider’s web of dependency” — also known as forcing the poor to swim or sink — is not the cure-all for social ills its supporters claim.

The thinking that supports the notion of “forcing the poor to swim or sink” is the same kind of thinking that leads to “zero tolerance” for misbehavior. It is rooted in rigid ideology and not based on evidence…. and as noted frequently in this blog evidence based decision making is not the long suit of our legislatures, particularly when the evidence contradicts conventional wisdom. Citing work done by Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Porter provides support for this assertion:

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology,” he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts.”

What is most perplexing is that the United States’ own experience with both welfare and its “reform” does not really support the charges.

Welfare is a helping hand and not a hand out… and zero tolerance is a slap on the hand where a helping hand is needed. We need to appeal to the part of the human spirit that wants to help people in need instead of the part of the human spirit that wants to punish those who are different from us. in short, we need a system built on tolerance instead of one based on intolerance. The only thing heartening about these articles is evidence that economists and law enforcement officials are seeing that punishment is not paying off. MAYBE incentives will follow.

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