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The idiotic logic of welfare “reform”

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Mitt Romney has proposed something that would help people, causing his former policy director Oren Cass to write a critique that is revealing indeed:

This structure will frustrate fans of an unconditional benefit, who see payments to households with no earnings of their own as a potent weapon in fighting poverty. Certainly, giving cash to families so that their incomes rise above the poverty line could lower the poverty rate measured by the government. But that rate is an abstract statistic, which uses household income as a proxy for identifying the population living in conditions of poverty.

Money itself does little to address many of poverty’s root causes, like addiction and abuse; unmanaged chronic- and mental- health conditions; family instability; poor financial planning; inability to find, hold or succeed in a job; and so forth. Effective anti-poverty policy provides resources in ways that also help resolve such problems and push the recipient toward resolving them himself.

Yes, giving money to people with no money will reduce poverty in the “abstract” (?) statistical sense of people being less poor. (Seems plenty tangible to me, but anyway.) But it won’t address “root causes” like the inability to find a job, so we shouldn’t help the people who most need it. This is the literal argument.

Needless to say, there’s no evidence presented that subsistence-level child payments would cause most people to not want to work, and also no alternative presented that would solve any of the identified problems. But the larger problem is that if you can solve the problem of poverty, who cares if you’re addressing the “root causes” or not?

Now, put aside whether these are actually the causes of poverty. Assume for the sake of argument that they are. If Romney’s plan fails to address the root causes, so what?

There are many problems we treat without addressing their root causes. Police don’t address the root causes of crime. Chemotherapy doesn’t address the root causes of cancer. Showering doesn’t solve the root causes of body odor. There are ways to alleviate many if not all of the problems Cass identifies — mental-health coverage, financial education, etc. — while still ensuring that poor families suffer less. Indeed, suffering less stress and hardship will make it easier to cope with problems like family instability, addiction, abuse, and poor financial planning. It’s quite hard to plan one’s finances when they barely cover food and shelter for your kids; on the other extreme, if you have enough money, you can have epically terrible financial-planning skills and still go on to become president of the United States.

Poverty has existed forever — since long before the welfare state. Identifying and solving the “root causes” of poverty is a difficult endeavor. Cass gestures at a grab bag of notions that he implies would solve the root causes, but there is no conservative plan to eliminate poverty via the root causes either. The question is whether we should make poverty less awful in a way that incorporates the most defensible and provable conservative insights, or treat poverty through the witch-doctor cure of making the poorest people suffer so terribly they will somehow find a way not to be poor.

The COVID relief bill will cut child poverty roughly in half, and it’s great that many fewer people are taking bullshit like Cass’s seriously in 2021.

…the following information from Cass’s Wikipedia page is presented without further commentary:

Cass received a B.A. in political economy from Williams College,[5] and was then hired as an associate consultant at Bain & Company.[1] After working at Bain for several years in the firm’s offices in Boston and New Delhi,[5] Cass “took a six-month leave to work on Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination”.[1] Cass then enrolled in Harvard Law School “to deepen his understanding of public policy”, stating of the experience that “law school is a lot of fun if you’re not there to be a lawyer”.[1] Cass “caught the attention of Romney’s staff while still in law school and was tapped as domestic policy adviser for the candidate’s presidential campaign in 2011”

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