Another Crushing Defeat for US Forces in the War on Poverty

Interesting analysis from NYT columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

I have a theory as to why this occurs, especially with Federal programs. First, a brief recap of the principle of Subsidiarity: decisions should be made at the lowest competent level. This is, at least in part, because the lower levels of authority are closer to the situation, and can make a more informed decision based on individual circumstances. The further away from the situation an authority is, the less detail is available to it, and therefore the greater the need to make rules which guide decisions.

Now, one thing that welfare programs need to do is to define eligibility. There are two broad approaches to writing the rule:

  1. Ensure that nobody ineligible obtains the benefit.
  2. Ensure that nobody eligible is denied the benefit.

In the first case, some people will be denied benefits who should receive them; the number of recipients will be small, and will include only those truly eligible. In the second case, the number of recipients will be much larger, as the rules will wave through some ineligible applicants, in order to avoid blocking eligible applicants. Everyone eligible will get benefits; but so will many others.

The first approach can be characterized as “tight-fisted”, the second as “open-handed”. I submit that most people going into government service see themselves as helping others, and would prefer to be open-handed.

Especially with Other People’s Money.

There is another reason that government employees would prefer to be open-handed: it’s less work. See, for instance, this report on school lunches for the children of Hurricane Sandy victims. All children in NYC schools got the free lunch, because it would have been hard to identify those actually impacted by the storm. Note that the mother being interviewed offers a solution consistent with Subsidiarity: have the schools determine who qualifies for the free lunch.

 

 

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