Ours’ was once a society that expected able-bodied folks to carry their own weight and not be a burden on others. And, it didn’t take much to be considered able-bodied.
Depending on others was looked down upon, shamed. Putting up a genuine effort to take care of your responsibilities earned you respect and dignity, and those marks of character use to carry some clout.
This seems to have changed over the past few decades. The standard seems to have gone from ‘able-bodied’ to ‘no fault of your own.’ If an intellectual from an elite university, or politicians seeking re-election can make a plausible sounding argument that passes the 5 second sniff test that some poor sap wound up in a bad position ‘through no fault of their own,’ then it’s ‘our’ job to help him out.
I say 5 second sniff test, because if most of us thought about the poor sap who lost his job ‘through no fault of his own’ two years ago, hasn’t found another job and has a family to feed and a house payment to make for more than 5 seconds we might start asking questions. Has he had any job offers? How many resumes has he sent out? Did he save an emergency fund? Has he tried to take a lower paying job to make ends meet? Does he have any other skills? Did he really need to buy a house with a mortgage payment so large that he couldn’t afford to pay it if he lost his job? Did he need to take out the home equity loan to remodel the bathroom? We might start to think of this poor sap who is in a tough spot ‘through no fault of his own’ as an ‘able-bodied’ person who maybe does deserve some of the fault.
Reading this exchange between university professors Bryan Caplan and Bill Dickens (the latter was the former’s Econ 1 teacher) troubles me.
Caplan steadfastly holds that a major cause of poverty is irresponsible behavior, that correcting this behavior is a good way out of poverty and rewarding this behavior is not a good way to stop it. Rather, that’s a good way to get more of it.
That part of the exchange I had no problem with.
It’s Dickens response that troubles me. First, I find its high fallacy and emotion content unbecoming of a university professor. Second, he goes out of his way to make excuses for irresponsible behavior. One example:
I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare recipients when I was working on the reform… Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to support their family, they know it would be better if their children’s father was there to help support their kids. There is no shortage of hectoring from society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media.
From Caplan’s response:
I don’t think they’re sorry for their behavior. I think they’re sorry they’re experiencing the predictable consequences of their behavior. I see them the same way I’d see a serial adulterer enduring a hellish divorce: “Sure you’re sorry. Sorry you got caught! Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.”
I’d add that there’s also no shortage of folks like Dickens who psychologists from circa 1980 would call enablers. While Dickens sees plenty of ‘hectoring from society’, I see plenty of people telling them it’s okay. It’s not their fault. Society has just left them behind. We have a safety net to help. Please, feel no shame.
I don’t have much problem with social safety nets, with the exception that they tend to devolve into dependency reinforcement programs, rather than true anti-poverty programs.
We don’t have real safety nets. Real safety nets would look more like this. Do you want to receive unemployment benefits? Report to your local Parks & Rec guy on Monday and spend 8 hours cleaning parks. We’ll help, but we expect you to do something productive in return.
Do you want welfare? How about a drug test? Did you get a free visit to the emergency room? There’s plenty of work to be done at the hospital. Maybe you can scrub a floor. Want a student loan? Sign up for a degree program that leads to a paying job. But how will we know if it will or not? By looking at whether past students who took loans out for the same program paid their loans back.
In the old days, if you were down on your luck and needed a free meal, you at least offered to wash dishes. Now, it’s okay to get a free meal and simply ask for more.
One of the most destructive things that has happened in our society has been removing shame, which has devalued dignity. Why work to earn respect when you can get by without it? Sure, there are some parts of society where the shame and dignity feedbacks are still vibrant, but they’re dead or dying in many parts controlled by government, which is around 40% of the economy.
Later in Dickens response, he suggests that Caplan spend time with some poor people. I’d recommend the same thing for Dickens. Except, this time, don’t do it while working on the President’s welfare reform task force. Interact with them on a regular, day-to-day basis. Go to the billing departments of hospitals. Become a checkout clerk at a grocery store. See what is bought by folks with government assistance. Go visit some folks receiving Social Security disability. Or, when they are getting a payday or title loan. The stories I hear from folks in these areas would have been considered shameful by most not long ago.
I hate to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are people who still value dignity who are helped by these programs and eventually work to become self-sufficient. It’s much more palatable to me to at least attempt to direct and limit these programs for such folks. That should be what it’s about, right?
That was the whole idea of the ‘able-bodied’ standard. Get off the dole if you can so we have enough to help the ones who really need it.
Daniel Hannan addressed this in his book, The New Road to Serfdom, as well. I wrote about here. I quote myself and Hannan from that post (his is the double indent):
Then Hannan goes on to analyze why the 1996 welfare reform in the U.S. was successful. He gives several reasons, but one of the most important was localism in the administration of welfare. Ultimately, the reform pushed welfare administration from a centralized federal level, to a local, in some cases, sub-state level, which has many benefits. This is probably one of the best:
…localism under-girds the notion of responsibility: our responsibility to support ourselves if we can, and our responsibility to those around us–not an abstract category of the “the underprivileged,” but the visible neighbors–who, for whatever reason, cannot support themselves. No longer is this obligation discharged when we have paid our taxes. Localism, in short, makes us better citizens.