A few days back, I posted about the idea that the welfare state has led to a certain degree of moral hazard, and that there is a danger of a safety net (which is a good thing) becoming a hammock (which isn’t). Occasional commenter Huck differed, and cited the case of his own family, which took no more from the government than was absolutely necessary to keep the wolf from the door. His story is admirable, and an example of what government programs should be — a hand up rather than a handout.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, and in the NYT, Nicholas Kristof takes a look at things in Breathitt County, KY, not too terribly far from where Mrs. M grew up. The opening is pertinent, I think, to our discussion:
THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.
Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.
“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”
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.
and a bit later (link in original):
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.
and shortly thereafter (again, Kristof’s links):
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.
This last bit strikes me as particularly interesting. We have heard the phrase “defining deviancy down” with some frequency since Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase in a paper about twenty years back. I would suggest that what Kristof is describing is a sort of mirror version of that: defining dependency upward.
And for one last comment on the aspect of moral hazard to the enterprise, I’ll return to Kristof:
A local school district official, Melanie Stevens, puts it this way: “The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan.”
Now maybe Huck is right — perhaps these scenes that Kristof reports are the exceptions, and perhaps his own case is more typical. It would be nice to think so. But how many Breathitt County kids do we lose for every person we save, and how many are too many?