Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Good Books

Do you know how I define a good book? A good book is one that gives me answers to which I have not yet thought of the questions. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. by Piven and Cloward is a good book. To determine the functions of public welfare, the authors understood that the logical first step was to study that with which it was correlated. They found that, throughout history, the expansion and contraction of public welfare is not correlated with any objective measure of poverty, but rather with the level of civil unrest in society. Welfare occurs not when people are poor, but when the people begin to burn things. The other function of public welfare they identified is that it enforces low-wage work. By making the process of obtaining welfare demeaning and arduous, it makes people willing to take any work available rather than apply for welfare. This book has dramatically shifted my opinion of the welfare system. I can now view it as an insurance policy, rather than a burden, since it is the price I pay to live in a stable society.

Because of reading this book, I have been attempting to construct the theoretically perfect welfare system. I believe such a system would contain the following elements:

1. Work: most aid programs involve the recipient looking for some sort of paid work, but I believe that this is unnecessary. Society derives few benefits from the economic contribution of low-wage work. Rather, it is the structuring, and discipline, of work itself which has the greatest societal impact (in terms of regulating the poor, that is). Thus any work, including volunteer work (even picking up trash alone highways), which may not be economically viable at any "living" wage, is still worthwhile for society and should be supported by a welfare program.

2. Level of aid: the amount of aid should increase, rather than decrease, with the amount of work done. The economy, through means of paychecks, provides an incentive for improving one's status. By decreasing aid as more work is done, welfare systems work against the market incentives. If anything, we should be encouraging the market to incorporate these people, rather than fighting against it.

3. Simplicity: any sort of means testing involves tremendous administrative costs. However, these means tests also serve to enforce low-wage work by making the aid process demeaning and arduous. Thus, if we eliminate the complexities of the system, we also eliminate our ability to control who enters the aid program--a serious limitation.

4. Cut offs: if at any point benefits are terminated, or severely cut, it reduces the incentive to better one's position--leading to a permanent underclass. Thus an ideal program would have voluntary cut offs. The only way I can think of to make this work is through a name and shame program. Publish the names of those receiving aid (preferably in a searchable list online). This information would thus be available to credit agencies, for everyone doing background checks, employers, and most importantly, to fellow aid recipients. This would produce pressure to leave the roll as soon as possible. The social pressure, furthermore, would be particularly strong if there was a strictly limited amount of funding available.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Philosopher Poet said...

You're talking sense and logic again! You forget you live in a land of idiots.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States emphasizes the role of social unrest in starting up democratic processes, from the Whiskey Rebellion to women's suffrage. Sometimes when the money's not there you can calm people down with the right to vote.

Society derives few benefits from the economic contribution of low-wage work. Rather, it is the structuring, and discipline, of work itself which has the greatest societal impact (in terms of regulating the poor, that is).

Maybe this is why homeownership is good for people, mowing lawns is its own reward. I can think of two things that are cheap that society benefits from a lot, oil and child care, but I don't know if that proves anything.

I can now view it as an insurance policy, rather than a burden, since it is the price I pay to live in a stable society.

The only argument for welfare that works, since it's the only one that appeals to the interests of the people who have influence on the government.

Publish the names of those receiving aid (preferably in a searchable list online).

You should ask why we don't already publish everybody's tax records, to shame them into paying more taxes. I bet there are reasons.

I'd be interested in reading a book about just how we set up welfare programs with one hand while making it disrespectable to use them with the other. This looks like it.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States emphasizes the role of social unrest in starting up democratic processes, from the Whiskey Rebellion to women's suffrage. Sometimes when the money's not there you can calm people down with the right to vote.

Hmm. Revolutions tend to occur not when things are worst, but when they begin to get better. Why should reforms be different?

Maybe this is why homeownership is good for people, mowing lawns is its own reward.

From what I have read, there is really no good reason to encourage homeownership, other than to create a less-transient (and thus more governable) society.

9:05 AM  

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