by Jay Johansen | Feb 7, 2014
When people debate government spending, you often hear an exchange that goes something like this:
Conservative: Government anti-poverty programs encourage dependency. Unemployment benefits cause unemployment, because some people would rather collect unemployment than get a job. Welfare causes poverty, because some people would rather live off the government than get a job. Programs to help single mothers cause illegitimate births, because some women get pregnant to collect the benefits.
Liberal: How dare you insult poor people like that! Nobody wants to be unemployed. Nobody wants to be on welfare. People are on these programs because they have no other choice. It's absurd to suggest that someone would get pregnant just to collect government benefits. These benefits do not compensate for all the trouble and expense of having a baby.
I don't know of anyone who is suggesting that all unemployed people could find work if they just weren't so lazy. Rather, the argument is that if you make it easier for people to get along without a job, there will be some number who will decide to take advantage of this.
At one extreme are people who will do whatever it takes to find a job and to find one quickly. Some of these feel guilty about collecting money for not working. Some cannot get along on the amount of money that unemployment benefits provide and they need or want more. Some are restless and bored not having a job. Whatever.
At the opposite extreme are people who are simply lazy. They are not disabled or otherwise physically unable to work. Jobs are available. They could walk out tomorrow and get a dozen job offers, but they don't want to because they would rather spend their time lying on the sofa watching TV, or hanging out on the beach surfing, or getting high on drugs. Whatever. You cannot seriously tell me that no such people exist. This is a reality so well-known and obvious that to deny it is just absurd. It is not an insult to poor people in general to say that some number of people are poor because they are lazy and irresponsible.
Some people are poor because they are the victims of circumstances beyond their control. Economic factors on a global scale have wiped out jobs and no matter how hard they try they can't find anything. Or they suffer from a physical or mental handicap that makes it impossible for them to work. Or they are victims of discrimination. Or perhaps they made decisions that seemed reasonable at the time but that have proven to be a mistake, like they spent their lives learning a trade that has now been made obsolete by new technology. (Learning new skills is certainly possible but not something one can do overnight.) Etc.
But other people are poor because they are lazy and irresponsible. They don't bother to get a job because they don't want a job. Or if they do get a job, they can't keep it because they don't bother to show up for work or they spend all day goofing off. Insisting that there are no such people just makes it apparent that you are either totally out of touch with reality or that you are deliberately lying to further a political agenda. (And that you think the audience is so stupid that they will believe such an absurd claim.)
It is fair to ask what the relative numbers are. Are 10% of the people on welfare truly needy and 90% lazy, or 90% truly needy and 10% lazy, or what? This is not an easy statistic to discover. It is obvious, is it not, that you can't just take a survey of welfare recipients. If you ask, "Are you truly needy or are you a lazy good-for-nothing stealing from the taxpayers?", I'd expect very few would admit to being in category (b).
I will offer this tidbit of anecdotal evidence: For a time my wife and I worked with homeless people. Of the five people we worked with for an extended period of time, one young black man was, I think, a victim of racial discrimination who was really trying to get on his feet but faced many obstacles. The other four were lazy and irresponsible. That's 20% trying versus 80% lazy. Of course that's far too small a sample to draw large conclusions. Inconclusive anecdotal evidence, but perhaps interesting.
Perhaps not so obvious is that besides these extremes -- the very diligent and the completely lazy -- there is a large middle ground. There are people who under some circumstances would work and take care of themselves, but who are pushed over the edge by the availability of government benefits.
A simple case would be a person who can get a job and will get a job, but because government benefits are available he is not particularly desperate, and so he delays. Maybe he simply decides that he will collect unemployment or welfare benefits for a while to take a break. He could get a job: he's capable of work and jobs are available. If no government benefits were available, he would get a job because he'd have no choice. But the benefits are enough to get along on for a while, so he just takes a little vacation at taxpayer expense.
Or suppose someone had a job paying, say, $50,000 a year, but then for whatever reason he lost this job. He starts looking for a new job and gets an offer for $40,000. If there were no government benefits, he might conclude that $40,000 is a lot better than zero and so he had better take it. But with government benefits, he concludes that he has the leisure to keep looking until he finds something that pays as much as he was making before.
Is this person lazy? No. He wants to work. He is trying to find a job. Is passing on the mediocre job a bad decision? One can only say, "bad" in what sense? In terms of making the best possible life for himself and his family, it may well be a good decision. It could be argued that if a higher-paying job allows him to more fully use the skills he has developed, in the long term this is best for the economy as a whole. We could debate endlessly whether such a decision is cheating the taxpayers, because he is continuing to collect benefits when he has another alternative; or whether he is simply using a benefit to which he is legally entitled, and to which he has likely contributed tax dollars himself.
But there is one thing which is not debatable: The existence of government unemployment benefits has, in this case, caused unemployment. Without the benefit, he would have gotten a job. With the benefit, he chooses to remain unemployed.
Perhaps some of the most heated remarks I have heard have been over single motherhood. It is absurd to suppose, the liberals say, that a young woman would have a baby just to collect government benefits.
So okay, tell us why unmarried young women do have babies.
I used to work with pregnant teenagers, and I think most came down to three cases:
Most responsible adults say that a 15 year old girl without a husband (or some sort of committed partner) is not in a good position to have a baby, and that none of these are good reasons. Nevertheless, they are often convincing reasons to 15 year old girls. Perhaps you can think of other reasons. But surely you would agree that there is no overwhelmingly good reason for an unmarried teenager to have a baby. There is no case where you can say, "Yes, the best possible thing she could do in her life right now is to have a baby. That would solve all her problems."
So suppose a girl is considering having a baby, but isn't sure if this is something she wants to do or not. She's on the borderline. Isn't it obvious common sense that if the government comes along and says, "If you do decide to have the baby, we will give you such-and-such an amount of cash every month and pay for you to get an apartment", that this would push some number to decide to do it?
Think of any decision you have ever made. If you were really on the edge deciding whether, say, to go to Florida or Las Vegas for your next vacation, and then someone came along and said, "If you go to Florida I will give you $5,000", wouldn't that be an incentive to choose Florida?
Others who have worked with pregnant teens tell me that they have met some who openly say that they got pregnant to collect government benefits. Many have met girls who did not get along with their parents -- usually also a single mother -- and who discovered that if they got pregnant the government would pay to set them up in their own apartment, give them food stamps, and give them a monthly cash benefit of a couple of hundred dollars. (Of course the exact benefits differ depending on the state and the girl's circumstances, so the details differ.) No one supposes that this enables such a girl to live a life of luxury. But it's a ticket out of her parents' house.
How many teenagers have not, at one point or another, wanted to get away from their parents? Sometimes its an occasional brief argument, quickly gotten over. But often there's a long running battle. Now the government comes along and says, "Hey, you want to get away from your parents? Okay. We'll give you your own apartment, pay for your groceries, and give you a monthly allowance for expenses. In return, you have to agree to do just two things: 1. Get pregnant, and 2. Not marry the father." Is it surprising that some number take them up on this offer?
You could certainly say that teen girls who do this are being foolish. They are not thinking out what it really costs to live on their own, and all the other responsibilities that go along with not only living on your own, but trying to take care of a baby, too. But does anyone seriously suppose that human beings always carefully think out all the consequences and ramifications of every decision they make? Lots of people make stupid decisions on the spur of the moment -- I certainly have. Teenagers are, by definition, inexperienced, and in practice often short-sighted and irresponsible.
If you offer people money to do something, some number of people will accept your offer. Even if the offer is to do something that is not in the person's long term best interest: people often do things for an immediate benefit without considering the long term consequences.
That simple and obvious fact includes accepting government benefits.
© 2014 by Jay Johansen
Sagor Jul 23, 2014
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