If only things were this simple. The current thinking on the left about welfare reform is an idea called the “guaranteed basic income.” It’s an eminently logical idea. The poor are poor because they don’t have money. Therefore, let’s give them some.
That’s the concept behind New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s push to reduce work requirements (the basis of welfare reform in the 1990s). But some on the left are realizing it’s a deeply flawed idea.
Why? Because being poor isn’t the same as being broke. Poverty is a much more complex problem and deserves a more compassionate response than a simple check.
Reihan Salam, a columnist for the liberal Slate magazine, affirms this.
“I think that no-strings-attached money is a dangerously bad idea and that it will do far more to undermine poverty-fighting efforts than it will to strengthen them,” he contends. “I also think that meddlesome caseworkers are the unsung heroes of the fight against poverty.”
Salam does something that seems too rare these days; he acknowledges the other side has some valid points.
“The welfare reformers of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t call for work requirements because they wanted to punish the poor,” he writes. “They did so because of mounting evidence that worklessness in high-poverty neighborhoods contributed to the entrenchment of poverty and to the social isolation of those living in welfare-dependent households. Drawing welfare recipients into the workforce was seen as the best way to get them on the ladder to upward mobility. Despite massive shifts in the economy that have been particularly hard on less-skilled adults, work requirements have been a success by and large.”
There’s a reason for this. Poverty is more than just the condition of not having money.
A far better definition of poverty is offered by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book “When Helping Hurts.”
“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms...” the authors explain. “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation and separation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.”
A government check addresses none of those things. A job does.
Yet there’s another reason Salam cites for keeping work requirements and rejecting “guaranteed basic income” even for those who can work but don’t. That’s legitimacy. Americans are a generous people, he says, but they also want to be sure the people they’re helping actually need help. Programs that are seen as “unfair” or giveaways to people who don’t need them quickly lose support.
“The failure to enforce work requirements thus undermines the legitimacy of welfare, and it endangers the good that welfare can do,” Salam said.
Ronald Reagan was right when he said “I believe the best social program is a job.” The poor want self-sufficiency, more power over their own lives, and a voice.