We suck at deciding who deserves help so maybe we should just help everyone


Another month, another study showing that giving the poor more money is good for their health:

Twenty years ago, a group of researchers began tracking the personalities of 1,420 low income children in North Carolina. At the time, the goal was simple: to observe the mental conditions of kids living in rural America. But then a serendipitous thing happened.

Four years into The Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth, the families of roughly a quarter of the children saw a dramatic and unexpected increase in annual income. They were members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and a casino has just been built on the reservation. From that point on every tribal citizen earned a share of the profits, meaning about an extra $4,000 a year per capita.

Researchers were thus presented with a rare opportunity to study what happens when some families—particularly those with low-incomes— are given a basic income and others are not.

The differentiating results will shock you, I’m sure:

“This was important to the development of the children, to their wellbeing” said Akee. “And the effect wasn’t small either—it was actually fairly large.”

Not only did the extra income appear to lower the instance of behavioral and emotional disorders among the children, but, perhaps even more important, it also boosted two key personality traits that tend to go hand in hand with long-term positive life outcomes.

You should read the rest for the particular gains of those personality traits, the general stress reduction for parents, and the decidedly ho-hum conclusions from the researchers. Given what we know of the toxic biological effects of poverty on children, the presence of an uplifting and stable income should be expected to ameliorate negative outcomes. And in this case, as others, it’s worked (un)remarkably well.

This is as good a time as any to remind folks that, yea, poverty policy that works is a known thing. When we decide that folks shouldn’t be immiserated by material deprivation we transfer more income to them and it functions quite well. Yet when we think about how to do more for the least of us we pretend we’re ignorant and get bogged down in complicated schemes that would be relatively ineffective.

When we try to design these new programs or develop these new ideas what we’re really attempting to do is pass the political smell test of muddled moral judgements on deservedness. The problem with such a path is that we’re actually quite bad at deciding who deserves what even by our own vague, common metrics:

  • We want those who’re able-bodied to work, but we don’t do enough to guarantee good jobs and completely discount non-paid labor as work worth supporting through anything outside a submerged tax scheme.
  • We don’t believe kids should work to live but we don’t provide enough resources to grow up without the consequences of food insecurity and economic precariousness.
  • The elderly shouldn’t work to survive, and while we do the most for them elder poverty has actually increased. Not only have we raised the eligibility age for Social Security (which will disproportionately harm low-income workers, of course) but our retirement system is so abysmal that we should be arguing about how much we should lower the age and how much we should be increasing benefits.
  • We don’t think severely disabled folks should work, but we reject their applications at alarmingly high rates through an incredibly dysfunctional system.
  • It’s a commonly-held ideal that mothers should be taking care of young children, and increasingly ideal that fathers do (yay!), but not only did we decide in the late 90s that jobless poor mothers were actually systemic leeches and thus ended that parade—we also can’t agree that middle class mothers and fathers shouldn’t be guaranteed leave to do the socially respectable thing we want them to do.

I could probably go on but I think my point is made. We, collectively, suck at determining who should qualify as the undeserving poor. Historically, and contemporarily, we’re more likely to only perpetuate existing structures of gender and racial inequality in the process.

This is where ideas like a basic income guarantee, or at the very least a ubiquitous child allowance, become very appealing. It takes the (wrong) question that we only ever answer very poorly completely out of our very flawed hands. While the radicalism of universal benefits may be the argument that there is no such as thing as the undeserving poor, the practical benefit of universality is that it ends the befuddled and harmful power struggle from endlessly arguing otherwise.


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