Sunday, January 28, 2007

Welfare Advocacy Journalism

Is this a news article on welfare or an editorial? It is apparent what it is from the beginning:
When Texas became one of the first states in the nation to overhaul welfare by insisting the poor work, the governor made a bold prediction.

"I believe this bill will make Texas a much better place," Gov. George W. Bush said at the June 1995 bill signing.

If issuing fewer welfare checks means better, then Texas has succeeded. But Texas' welfare-to-work success masks a growing poverty problem that, critics say, has little to do with the writing of paltry checks and much to do with the state's historical resistance to offering services to those in need.
When the articles use the phrase "critics say", that means, "the writers say, but this is an editorial masked as a news article so we have to hide our bias."

That aside, I think we need a new way of looking at welfare and politics. Such new thinking is found in economist Eric D. Beinhocker's book The Origin of Wealth. First some background on what he calls strong reciprocity:
Human beings are neither inherently altruistic nor selfish; instead they are what researchers call conditional cooperators and altruistic punishers. [They] refer to this type of behavior as strong reciprocity and define it as "a predisposition to cooperate with others, and to punish (even at personal cost if necessary) those that violate the norms of cooperation, even when it is implausible to expect these costs will be recovered at a later date."
Beinhocker goes on to apply this to public support for welfare:
The economic and political ramifications of strong reciprocity may not be immediately obvious, but once we change the core assumption of human behavior, a lot changes. As an example, consider the issue of public support for the welfare state. In the 1903s through the 1960s, U.S. government programs to help the less fortunate generally enjoyed widespread popular support. That support dropped dramatically in the 1970s through the 1990s. The reason for this drop have been the subject of much debate. Those on the left argue that the lack of support stems from racism, as those receiving benefits are overwhelmingly minorities, and the rise of the selfish "me" generation during this period-in other words, a lack of altruism. The favored explanation of the Right is that people finally woke up to the ineffectuality of most welfare programs, thought it was a waste of their taxes, and wanted their money back-in other words, self-interest.

Using a combination of surveys, [researchers] found significant evidence that the swing in attitude was really due to neither of these explanations, but to strong reciprocity in action. When the social programs were instituted, those receiving benefits were viewed primarily as people who wanted jobs but who, because of bad luck and the vagaries of the economy, could not get them. Social norms supported the idea that such people deserve help. In more recent times, however, the popular perception has shifted to the idea that people on benefits are lazy, not interested in work, and abusing the generosity of society. Those behaviors violate reciprocity norms, and are seen as warranting the withdrawal of support and even punishment.

The authors suggest that social policies should be designed specifically to "mobilize rather than offend reciprocal values." For example, policies that are consistent with strong reciprocity included providing skills training those who want to work, giving incentives for the poor to accumulate savings, supporting entreneurial activities in deprived areas, and improving educational opportunities for the disadvantaged. Likewise, strong reciprocity norms encourage people to categorize the disadvantaged into the deserving and undeserving.
So in the whole welfare debate, policy makers would be wise to heed Beinhocker's advice.


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