New York Times: Republicans Right On Welfare Reform

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof highlighted some heartbreaking cases of how our “safety net” powerfully disincentivizes activities like learning and advancement, perpetuating the cycle of dependence.

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.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.

“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.

Mike Judge’s under-appreciated Idiocracy seems more and more prescient as time goes on…

Is A Cure For Cancer Near?
Weekend Caption Contest™ Winners
  • Joe_Miller

    This is, of course, overly simplistic. At least that’s what I’ve been told by my very learned lawyer colleagues when I’ve made the very same argument.

    • jim_m

      Yes, people caught in the ugly truth of their ideology always find an excuse to claim that it isn’t what it appears to be.

  • jim_m

    Kristof stumbles into the realization that the right is not against helping the poor. The right is just against keeping them poor. Welfare does that very well. Clinton understood this. Unfortunately, obama belongs to the side that does not see any problems with perpetual government dependency which is why he rolled back the Clinton welfare reforms..

  • 914

    Hmmm? Looks like the occupoop crowd paid a visit..

  • When it comes to government entitlements, you seem to always get more of the behavior you subsidize, whether it’s good or bad.

    And, as always, intentions don’t matter. Yes, it was a well-meaning program… that just happened to get some folks to understand that in order to get more money, their children had to stay illiterate.

    Yes – some people WILL do everything they can to maximize their income from the government. Sad thing is – the kids end up losing their one way to get out of poverty…

    • herddog505

      JLawsonYes – some people WILL do everything they can to maximize their income from the government.

      Realistically, why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t anybody try to get (or keep) as much from Uncle Sugar as they possibly can? Don’t get me wrong: I despise these mooches, the moreso because they’re screwing over their own children to keep themselves in beer and Doritos. However, why shouldn’t somebody try to get that extra check any more than somebody else shouldn’t take an extra tax break, or get a big fat government contract to build a bridge to nowhere?

      When government increasingly becomes the Money Train, people will naturally plot and scheme to get the best seats.

      • JWH


        You reminded me of something I saw when I visited an Occupy campout last year. Somebody was carrying a sign demanding loan forgiveness, and I nearly hit the roof (or I would have if I were not outside). I make a good (but not spectacular) living, and I’ve (somewhat unhappily) sent my checks in to Sallie Mae when they were do.

        The idea of outright forgiving student loans for folks rankled me. First, because if their loans were forgiven, their lenders would still want money … and that money would come from me. Second, I saw something deeply wrong with letting people get out of loans scot-free, while I had to keep paying off my loans.

        Make no mistake, I’m all for some form of loan forgiveness for people who take on certain public-service jobs. There are occupations that demand expertise (or credentials) but don’t pay the wages needed to pay for it. And there’s an incentive program for federal employees that helps pay their loans. I’m OK with that as a job benefit.

        And I think there’s something to be said for making private loans dischargeable in bankruptcy. If nothing else, it will teach private lenders to be more discerning about their loans. And of course, bankruptcy carries a long-term price.

        But outright forgiveness? Bloody ingrates can keep their hands out of my wallet, thank you very much.

        • jim_m

          I believe that there should be a mechanism where we forgive (well really allow it to be discharged through bankruptcy, I think that the fact that student loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy is a huge give away to universities) a portion of student loans and it should be 100% taken out of the universities that gave these kids’ worthless degrees. I think that if you took it out of the university they would have an incentive to actually make sure their students received value for their money.

          The student should be able to discharge through bankruptcy at least part of their loans and the part forgiven should be taken back from the university as they failed to deliver a useful education.

          • herddog505

            There is something to be said for shifting at least some of the burden / onus onto the universities. While I don’t suggest that they become monasteries with the kids shivering in unheated, overcrowded dorms and studying their books like monks for want of any recreation, I do think that too many universities have become something akin to a four- or five-year post-high school vacation with a little classroom time thrown in to break up the monotony of gourmet coffee, fast food, spa-quality “student recreation center” facilities, sex, drugs, alcohol, parties, semi-pro sports, and other forms of entertainment provided at low- to no-cost so the little darlings can “blow off steam” after the stress of studying for five or six hours per week.

            Most sickening to me is the fact that the colleges are not far from handing out good grades in direct exchange for the tuition check, either by direct grade inflation or else through offering classes that require little more than a pulse to get an “A”. The University of North Carolina is presently in some hot water for using the latter system to keep football players eligible:

            See also:


        • herddog505

          JWHThere are occupations that demand expertise (or credentials) but don’t pay the wages needed to pay for it. And there’s an incentive program for federal employees that helps pay their loans.

          1. If the occupation demands expertise but doesn’t pay for it, then I suggest one of two explanations / “solutions”:

          (A) There is a glut of people with that expertise, creating a buyer’s market for their labor, or;

          (B) There really isn’t that much of a demand for that expertise to begin with.

          Can you name some examples?

          2. The only federal employees to whom I’m interested in giving a break are GI’s. As for the rest, while some do necessary jobs, quite a few are a burden on the body politic, hired to shuffle paper or enforce / come up with new rules and regulations that are either the proper purview of the several states or else shouldn’t be in existence in the first place. We’d be better off with them on unemployment. In short, f*ck ’em: let them take their Poli-Sci degrees and either work for their local cities / counties or else go get a degree or job training that’s useful to somebody in the real world.

          Otherwise, I agree: I pay my student loans on time and have done since I got out of college, and I fail to see why other people can’t do the same. If they were foolish enough to go to a private university to get a degree that won’t pay a decent living after paying their student loan payments, then perhaps they can serve a useful purpose as a living warning sign to kids considering following the same sad path. But they can most assuredly keep their sticky IOWS fingers out of my wallet.

  • herddog505

    Wow. We’re actually encouraging parents to keep their children illiterate so as to collect more money:

    Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.

    “One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

    Oh, I know, I know: all these people are hard-working single mothers and E-5’s who just need a helping hand and NEVER vote for one politician or against another based on who promises to keep the gravy train running on time. To even HINT that these people are lazy drains on society is an insult – a GROSS INSULT – to all those decent, hardworking, lovable, upstanding Americans who – through absolutely no fault of their own – are victims of our eeeeeeevil corporations that depress their wages so that fatcats can ride in limos and send their kids to private school. If ONLY flipping burgers paid a living wage (it being apparently economically feasible to pay somebody $15 / hr to turn out $7 / hr worth of goods and services), this wouldn’t be a problem.


    What’s doubly disgusting about this is that we’ve had the debate before, and not so long ago: when Slick Willie signed welfare reform, it was after decades of Americans slowly waking up to the reality that many people on welfare ARE leeches, that they are poor NOT because of hard luck but because of chronic bad decision-making, and that these layabouts will vote in increasing numbers to get even more benefits because unscrupulous politicians and journalists and “community activists” constantly tell them that they have some right to the fruits of others’ labor. Thanks to MiniTru, to suggest that this is a problem is some sort of mortal sin. Hell, to suggest that people on welfare do SOMETHING (such as clean up their public housing developments) to earn the bread being provided to them is a suggestion so base, so vile, that the person uttering it is to be branded forever as the living embodiment of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

  • JWH

    It’s not NYT’s opinion as your headline alleges, but Kristof’s opinion.

  • Brucehenry

    Hey, correct me if I’m wrong, but Kristof says “conservatives” — not “Republicans — “have a point,” not “are right.”

    There’s a difference between “you have a point” and “you are right,” isn’t there?

    And as Wizbang commenters never tire of reminding me, there’s a difference between “conservatives” and “Republicans.”

    • jim_m

      Very well. Tell me which of the following you think are good ideas:

      1) Young people don’t join the military because it’s easier to be on food stamps and welfare

      2) Young women don’t get married because it is financially advantageous to do so, thus the system discourages marriage which is linked with higher likelihood of getting our of poverty (and lower incidence of criminality in young men)

      3) Parents are encouraged to stunt the educational achievement of the children because they believe they can get additional disability benefits from the state.

      Because if we only have a point then you must believe that some or all of these are good things. Otherwise you must admit that we are right and that the system needs reform.

      • Brucehenry

        I “must” do no such thing, Jim. Admit that you are right, that is, not that the system needs reform. Of course it needs reform. It continually needs reform.

        How many people do you think the military needs? I was under the impression they were meeting their recruiting goals.

        The marriage disincentive and the disability-benefit-abuse issue can be addressed by amending the regulations.

        My point is that one must consider that there would be no need to game the safety-net system if there were opportunities in the area. Appalachia has been an economic nightmare since long before the Great Society. In fact, it was the poverty in Appalachia that in large part convinced the country that LBJ’s antipoverty programs were necessary in the first place.

        • jim_m

          You said that the statement was that conservatives (ie, “we”) had a point and not that “we” were right. I asked that since your statement is founded on a presumption that there is a significant difference between being right on a subject and merely having a point then therefore the issues addressed must not be a problem since, if they were, then there would be no difference between having a point and being right.

          The point is that these issues are functional throughout the country and not just Appalachia.

          I ask again which one of the issues do you think is the right way for things to be?

          1) for men who could serve is it right that we incentivize welfare over service and learning a skill that will gain you a career?

          2) is it right for us to create a system that promote single motherhood? You say we can amend the regulations. That counts as reform so I assume that you agree that this incentive is wrong.

          3) It is right ot create an incentive that promotes parents to deter learning so they can get increased benefits.

          Since you have already said that #2 is wrong I am going to assume that you either think that welfare is preferable to military service for everyone eligible for public aid, or that you think keeping the lower classes stupid so they remain on public aid is a good thing.

          Since conservatives only “have a point” and are not right on this issue you have to be in favor of one of these. Otherwise you really do have to admit that conservatives are right on this issue. Or at least have the class to admit that the interpretation of Kristof saying that Conservatives were right is a reasonable reading of his article.

          And yeah, I think you are a pathetic loser for claiming that conservatives are not right when we point out the failures of the system. I think you are pathetic for claiming that just because we right about failures in the system that we only “have a point” when we point out those failures. And I think you are pathetic for refusing to admit that conservatives are right simply because they are conservatives. You would never have said so of a liberal.

          • Brucehenry

            Some of these are jokes, ladies and germs. Is this thing on?

            Kristof said conservatives have a point. The headline says “Republicans Are Right.” Hence my snark.

            My more serious concern is that wingnuts will use Kristof’s legitimate concerns over specific disincentive issues (marriage) and this whole disability abuse thing as an excuse to gut beneficial programs that keep kids fed, clothed, and housed. Ending “the dole” won’t magically create jobs in an area that hasn’t had jobs in 100 years.

          • jim_m

            Well that would be wrong. I like how you create the strawman of saying that conservatives may be correct in pointing out the failure while you imply that the only reason the failure is pointed out is so conservatives can starve the children of the poor to death.

            (which is silly since you should realize that we would prefer to eat them and starving them is contrary to that interest)

          • Brucehenry

            LOL you accuse me of using strawman arguments in the same sentence as an accusation that I said (or implied) you want to starve children to death.

            If conservatives said “we need to address these specific disincentives and abuse issues!” that would be one thing. But this thread demonstrates that conservatives will jump on these issues to attack the whole concept of government aid to poor folks. For their own good, mind you!

            You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots. Incentives to work are fine if there is a place to work when one acts on the incentive.

            EDIT: BTW, editing a comment after a reply has been made is uncool, dude. One might even call it the action of a pathetic loser.

          • jim_m

            I do edit my comments, but I try not to if someone has responded. Disqus is not notifying me of new comments on the thread so I have to reload the page to see if anyone has responded. I have not changed materially anything that my comments have said.

          • Brucehenry

            Except for the whole “You’re a loser” paragraph, lol.

          • jim_m

            Your straw man is that people want to end welfare entirely. The other one is that conservatives want to end welfare and starve the children. Your argument is as repugnant as it is bullshit.

          • Brucehenry

            See Herddog’s and JLawson’s sneers in this thread. No, they haven’t said explicitly that all welfare should end, but the gist of their comments tend in that direction.

            But I didn’t claim that conservatives are explicitly saying that all welfare should end. I said that I feared conservatives would use Kristof’s legitimate concerns as a reason to attack the concept of government aid to poor folks. And that is what’s happening, right here in this thread.

          • herddog505

            Yeah, you got me: I want all those people to starve in order to reduce the surplus population. Bah, humbug.

            Come to think of it, I’m surprised that you’re not with me (us?) on this thing. After all, isn’t it a matter of lefty dogma that there are too many people in the world generating too much CO2 and putting Mother Gaia at risk?

            But, to your point: yes, I think that welfare as we know it ought to end. There is nothing in the Constitution giving Uncle Sugar this power, and it has apparently done f*ck-all to end poverty; I seem to recall reading that the poverty rate today is just exactly what it was when that other jug-eared idiot got the idea that he could raid the then-Social Security surplus to buy votes in the poor parts of the country. For that matter, you even point out somewhere in the thread that LBJ used images of poverty in Appalachia to sell the Great Society; are those photos really that much different than the photo shown in the post?

            Jebus, we are incentivizing illiteracy! If that doesn’t scream that, at the very least, something is badly wrong with this program, I fear that there’s no hope for you.

            Oh, and one last thing about economically blighted areas:

            Six years ago, Mexico was the world’s ninth largest exporter of cars. Today the country is ranked fourth—behind Germany, Japan and South Korea—with exports expected to total more than 2.14 million vehicles this year.

            One in 10 cars sold last year in the U.S. was made in Mexico. Next year, every new taxi in New York’s fleet—made by Nissan Motor Co. —will carry the “Hecho en Mexico” label. Mexico is now exporting vehicles to China, and even helped Japan keep up with orders after last year’s tsunami.

            Mexico’s Economy Minister Bruno Ferrari boasted that a batch of new factories planned by car makers will help Mexico surpass South Korea in a few years.


            Why can Mexico do this and not eastern Kentucky?

          • Brucehenry

            How much does a worker in a car factory make in Mexico? If he makes TWICE the average manufacturing wage that other factory workers make, he grosses a whopping $706 a month. Maybe that’s why eastern Kentucky can’t do it.

            Apparently, though, that’s what conservatives want: a race to the bottom of the wage barrel. Won’t be satisfied until American workers are making the same wage as the Vietnamese or Bangladeshis. Six and a half 12-hour shifts a week to make $353 a month.

            Bootstraps, baby!

            You guys always slay me with your ending welfare “as we know it.” What do you propose as the new, improved welfare that doesn’t “disincentivize” work?

            EDIT: Also, too, please point out where I said nothing is wrong with this program.

          • herddog505

            RE: cost of labor

            Yes, it is MUCH cheaper in other parts of the world. And your point is?

            MY point is that Mexico has been an economically “blighted” country for years. That’s apparently changing. They are putting people to work, whereas we’re paying people to keep their kids in medieval ignorance. If they can do it, why can’t we?

          • Brucehenry

            They are putting people to work 65 hours a week for $353 a month. Is that what you want for America? THAT’S my point, Eb.

            When car companies find they can hire Bangladeshi factory workers for 75 hours a week at $178 a month, that’s what they’ll do. And I suppose you’ll be applauding Bangladesh for “putting people to work” in a formerly economically blighted country.

            Maybe that’s what happens when there’s no safety net, no “floor.” When the Bangladeshis get too pricey a Volkswagen factory could open in Congo and they can pay the workers in cassava root and AK47 cartridges.

          • jim_m

            Bruce I suppose that you are arguing that these issues are only operative in Appalachia since you claim that they are invalid based on conditions in that region. Obviously, these reforms would have no benefits elsewhere or these incentives to exploit welfare only exist there.

          • Brucehenry

            I don’t know how widespread these problems are. Kristof’s article is specific to Eastern Kentucky.

            When he cites statistics they show that more kids get these benefits based on disability than they used to, but there are only anecdotes to show that parents are purposely screwing their kids over. To the extent it’s occurring, it should stop. I’d want more evidence of fraud than the anecdotes and hearsay Kristof cites in this article.

            EDIT: And I imagine the job market may be even worse in inner-city Detroit or rural Bertie County, NC than it is in Eastern Kentucky.

          • jim_m

            The marriage issue is a national one and has been mentioned for years.

      • As I said – you get more of an action when you subsidize it.

        You might not be INTENDING to, but so what?

        Pay someone a stipend that goes away when they get married, and they won’t get married. Pay a stipend that increases when women have kids – and they’ll have kids to bump up the stipend. Make it easy to stay on food stamps and welfare, and you’ll have people who see no advantage to NOT getting off it.

        Make it pay to keep kids illiterate, and you’ll have parents who’ll make sure their kids never learn to read.

        Yes, it wasn’t the intended purpose. Yes, it wasn’t what anyone really wanted. But the law of unintended consequences doesn’t care about intentions or purposes.

        And the really pathetic part? Even with demonstrated bad results it’s going to be almost impossible to cut the programs that have backfired.

        So you’ve got to wonder – how many kids have been forced into illiteracy by this well-intentioned program? How many kids are going to be stuck in life-long poverty because of this?

        • jim_m

          And the really pathetic part?

          No. The really pathetic part is watching Bruce try to claim that conservatives are not right on the issue of welfare reform and that having a point does not mean that we are right.

          Then even more pathetic is watching him try to explain that despite the fact that all the examples above are valid and that welfare has failed in these areas that conservatives are not right when they point out those very examples.

          Pathetic is watching a hyperpartisan loser do anything he can to avoid admitting that his ideological opposite is right for once.

          • Brucehenry

            Actually KRISTOF pointed out those very examples. As I feared, conservatives, here and I’m sure elsewhere, are using Kristof’s specific examples to launch yet another attack on the Great Society.

          • jim_m

            Are you then saying that despite these flaws we should do nothing? Because no one is saying to get rid of welfare entirely (at least no one anyone takes seriously). The fact is that welfare is largely a failure in that it traps people in poverty. It was never meant to do so, but that is the effect. So if you are claiming that we should do nothing because these programs are sacrosanct as artifacts of the Great Society platform of LBJ, you are really in need of a reality check.

          • Brucehenry

            Please point out where I said we should do nothing.

          • herddog505

            Then what do you think that we SHOULD do?

            Remember: these people are all decent, upright, honest, God-fearing, hardworking folk who’ve been dealt a bad hand in life, so be careful what you suggest because – heaven forbid! – we do ANYTHING that might damage their self-esteem, take away what little safety net they have, or harken back to the ugly days of slavery by asking them to do anything for the money they’re being given.

          • Brucehenry

            I’ve already said these issues can be addressed by amending the regulations. I’m not a lawyer or bureaucrat so I don’t know the exact wording needed, but I’m confident the rules can be written so as not to disincentivize marriage or encourage this disability-claim abuse thing.

            BTW, you’re still sneering at poor people. Charming, here at Christmastime, particularly.

  • Brucehenry

    I suppose if we cut out the wrongly-gotten SSI payments these freeloaders get they’d take advantage of all the wonderful economic opportunity Eastern Kentucky offers.

    • jim_m

      Maybe Eastern Kentucky’s economy would be doing better if we weren’t giving all these incentives for people not to work. Or do you agree with Pelosi that entitlements are more stimulatory to the economy than jobs?

      • Brucehenry

        If these people didn’t have “incentives not to work,” where would they work?

        • retired.military

          Military is always looking for a few good people who are motivated.

          • Brucehenry

            As I said, I was under the impression the military was meeting its recruiting goals. Am I wrong?

          • jim_m

            Recruitment goals renew every year.

          • Brucehenry

            Excuse the stereotype, but how many dyslexic hillbillies is the Army looking for next year?

          • jim_m

            Well, maybe if we stopped incentivizing their single mothers to keep them illiterate they would qualify for service.

          • Brucehenry

            Yes, “maybe” they would, and maybe they would starve. And “maybe” Eastern Kentucky’s economy would be doing better, and maybe it wouldn’t.

          • Commander_Chico

            Kristof is right in many ways, there are people leeching off of the system, but I suspect that many really are retarded and dysfunctional people. In other words, they think they is scamming, but they ain’t. They are the unemployable. I used to spend a lot of time in this world and there are just some people who would need a one-year boot camp with basic skills and life training before they could perform in a job as a busboy. They are the product of weak education and degraded TV culture. The fact that they go to such lengths for a govt check is as much as symptom of their unemployability as a cause.

            This group are usually not fit for the military. Since we maintain a (too-) small force even in the face of Afghanistan, the military is somewhat selective. These people have not graduated from HS, they have criminal records, they test at the bottom, they have bad attitudes, etc. There might always be gold among the lead, but usually they are the troops that end up taking up 90% of your time.