A Litmus Test for Safety Net Policies

May 18, 2017

We all, I’m sure, know how people on “welfare,” i.e. receiving virtually any safety net benefit, are often bad-mouthed.

We know too that the process of gaining benefits and keeping them often subjects recipients to requirements and hassles that we’d never imposed on better-off people.

The humiliations and inconveniences deter some eligible people from applying — a feature, not a bug in some state and local systems.

But exclusion from the mainstream has other consequences, say the coauthors of another of the recently-published poverty reduction papers I mentioned the other day.
.
We obviously need reforms to reflect current facts—notably, the make-up of the poverty population. But Professors Kathryn Edin, Luke Schaefer and Laura Tach argue that we need something more to make our investments as effective as possible.

They propose a “litmus test” for anti-poverty policies. These, they say, should foster a sense of inclusion. That will not only accord beneficiaries the dignity they deserve, but help motivate them to act in ways that benefit them, their communities and our society as a whole.

They use the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit as a prime example. Not perfect, as they say, because it benefits only lower-income adults with paying jobs—and, as they don’t say, does very little for those who don’t have children living with them.

But their study of how EITC recipients spent their refunds found that they spend them “remarkably responsibly,” e.g,. to pay off debt, buy things that will last and, in their view at least, contribute to upward mobility.

Edin et al. cite two reasons for behaviors generally viewed as responsible. First, the refunds hinge on paying work — a core American value. So when prospective beneficiaries seek to claim it,, they’re treated respectfully, just as better-off filers are.

The second reason is that they can choose how they’ll spend their annual cash infusion, rather than having the choice made for them, as for example, SNAP (the food stamp program) does.

This, the coauthors say, is empowering. That in itself, one infers, contributes to responsible behaviors.

Perhaps, they say, their litmus test should extend to programs that depend on donations. Some I’m familiar with not only treat their clients with respectfully, but offer programs to empower them.

Perhaps you also know some too — and some that would flunk the litmus test. I and your fellow viewers, I think, would welcome personal stories, other examples, etc. posted here as comments.

Advertisements