There are few columnists in the US that regularly speak to poverty and exploitation as consistently and as effectively as Nicholas Kristof. The New York Times columnist regularly travels the world, landing in places that most people would work hard to avoid, to highlight atrocities committed against the most vulnerable. While conservatives might balk at Kristof’s conclusions and policy preferences – as I often do – there is no question about his commitment and honesty in speaking on behalf of the downtrodden.
That context is what made Kristof’s column last week all the more remarkable. Instead of traveling to Somalia or another war-torn piece of geography to find poverty and a lack of response, Kristof went to Appalachia to see what poverty looks like in the US, and how government programs respond to it. His conclusion should make people across the political spectrum sit up and take notice:
“This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.”
Kristof finds a number of cases where well-intentioned social-service programs produce perverse incentives that work to keep people in poverty rather than lift them out. Briefly, from a column that should be read carefully in full, those examples include a financial incentive to keep children illiterate, welfare benefits that punish marriage, and the ease in which children move from poverty programs to disability programs as adults.
The result, as Kristof discovered to his discomfiture, is precisely the kind of institutionalized poverty and dependency that safety-net programs produce when designed or expanded poorly. From a societal point of view, it’s a form of child abuse.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have safety-net programs at all? Some conservatives seem comfortable arguing for that very outcome, although these programs remain very popular in principle, if not always in outcome. As Kristof also points out, American safety-net programs have a track record of significant success, too. Fifty years ago, 35 percent of the elderly lived in poverty, while only 9 percent do so today – even as the definition of poverty has become rather elastic. The average family living in poverty now has air conditioning, washers and dryers, and microwave ovens.
However, we have traded the elderly for the children, in part because the elderly have a political voice, and in part because the institutions for protecting and educating children have broken down. Twenty-two percent of children live in poverty in the US, and many of those end up transferring to programs for adult poverty almost automatically.
Social programs bear some blame for that process. Decades of incentives that discourage or penalize marriage, as Kristof found in play in his Appalachian journey, have damaged the family structure, but social programs aren’t entirely to blame for that either.
The CDC reported in 2010 that single mothers accounted for 40.6 percent of all children born in 2008. Children raised outside of marriage are nine times more likely to live in poverty than their nuclear-family counterparts. The breakdown of the family and the diminishment of marriage as a social institution oriented toward protecting children play a large part in producing and perpetuating poverty. To the extent that social programs discourage marriage, they contribute to poverty rather than solve it.
Clearly, if we want to keep our social safety net programs – and there is very little political will to do otherwise – we need to re-engineer them to orient efforts to preparing children for success. To that end, we should try to find ways to improve education as a means to escape poverty and strengthen the institution of marriage. We need to find and eliminate marriage penalties in welfare programs, and perhaps look for ways to reward marriage in households with children. That also means orienting the state approach to marriage not as a licensing opportunity focused on adult outcomes, but as an institution where the state interest lies solely in protecting and nurturing children.
Welfare programs should also emphasize the need for self-sufficiency. Ironically, we already accomplished that in the mid-1990s with a rare case of real entitlement reform, in which Congress and President Bill Clinton created incentives for welfare recipients to find work. That requires an economy that produces real job creation, but also consistency in enforcing those provisions. President Barack Obama undermined them by executive order earlier this year, a move that should be rescinded as soon as possible.
We can do better on education in part by allowing resources to flow to non-government players through school choice. Too many families have no opportunity to offer their children any other option but the failing public school closest to their house. The substandard education that children in these schools receive doom them to poverty later just as surely as the easy path from Supplemental Security Income derived from claims of intellectual disability as a child to adult disability checks. School choice for poor families would enable parents to make choices that will allow their children to compete later for jobs, and to produce innovation that will lift even more children out of poverty in later generations.
Finally, while there is no will to eliminate social safety-net programs, they may face doom anyway on the basis of simple math. Governments at every level have incurred liabilities for safety-net programs that they have no realistic chance of fulfilling. Politicians expand programs without paying for what has already been promised, and those who argue for reform are shouted down by people who argue by anecdote.
If we want to save these programs to help the truly needy and lift people out of poverty, we need to put these programs on solid fiscal footing. That will mean rethinking every such program’s benefits, eligibility, and administration in a way that puts costs at a reasonable and sustainable level. Otherwise, we face a fiscal crash that would discredit these programs forever.
Washington is consumed at the moment with the fiscal-cliff standoff, which means that Kristof’s insight will probably go unheeded, at least for now. But perhaps if we can agree that the safety net strangles some of the very people we intend to help and needs serious reform to solve rather than perpetuate poverty, we may not run off the next fiscal cliff.