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The Welfare Myth

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Alec MacGillis has an excellent article on the demobilization of poor voters in poor counties, which leads to the election of governments that slash benefits they desperately need. Kentucky has received a lot of discussion, but there’s also Maine:

In Maine, Mr. LePage was elected governor in 2010 by running on an anti-welfare platform in a state that has also grown more reliant on public programs — in 2013, the state ranked third in the nation for food-stamp use, just ahead of Kentucky. Mr. LePage, who grew up poor in a large family, has gone at safety-net programs with a vengeance. He slashed welfare rolls by more than half after imposing a five-year limit, reinstituted a work requirement for food-stamp recipients and refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare to cover 60,000 people. He is now seeking to bar anyone with more than $5,000 in certain assets from receiving food stamps. “I’m not going to help anybody just for the sake of helping,” the governor said in September. “I am not that compassionate.”

His crusade has resonated with many in the state, who re-elected him last year.

But at least splitting the anti-LePage vote totally bully pulipted the Overton Window to the left!

This seems like a good time to note that the ostensible basis for LePage’s war on the poor is entirely without empirical foundation:

For as long as there have been government programs designed to help the poor, there have been critics insisting that helping the poor will keep them from working. But the evidence for this proposition has always been rather weak.

And a recent study from MIT and Harvard economists makes the case even weaker. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken reanalyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.” Attacking welfare recipients as lazy is easy rhetoric, but when you actually test the proposition scientifically, it doesn’t hold up.

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