A Partial Defense of “Strings Attached”
Last Tuesday, the Washington Post published two articles that criticized a recent raft of Republican initiatives that demean the poor by attaching somewhat humiliating strings to welfare programs. One was a Wonkblog piece by Emily Badger arguing that most “strings attached” legislation perpetuates a double-standard about government spending and fails to produce any benefit. The other was a typically-blistering editorial from Dana Milbank criticizing recent Republican spending priorities.
The underlying argument here is against attaching “strings” to anti-poverty legislation, whether for reasons of dignity or because doing so would constitute a double standard–we do not, after all, attach strings to middle-class benefits. At the risk of engaging a strawman, though, it is worth defending making poverty aid conditional in some circumstances, or even accepting policies that treat the poor somewhat differently than the well-off.
If you read contemporary historical work engaging with poverty and class struggles, almost universally, writers bend over backwards to avoid assigning blame onto poor people themselves for their station in life. The underlying argument is that various pathologies that affect the poor at different times correlated directly with underlying socioeconomic factors. For example, poor people suffered from tuberculosis at higher rates than rich people at the start of the twentieth century. At the time, well-off people stigmatized tuberculosis sufferers and attributed their maladies to their bad sanitary habits. (Nancy Tomes, in her excellent Gospel of Germs, notes that in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, TB metamorphosed from a “house disease” to a “tenement house disease,” associated with the poor.) Never mind that the poor ventilation and close-quarters of the slums were a source of increased local TB morbidity. Disease, unfairly, became a sign of moral failure.
In a noble effort to rehabilitate and rescue the character and humanity of the historically stigmatized, historians have opted to gloss over and deny the significance of more intangible factors in shaping history. In this conception, the individual is helpless in the face of structural inequalities; the injustice of their systems sealed their fates. Intangible factors–things that we once would have labeled “virtues”–have no place in these narratives, because they cannot be detected by our analysis.
While much of the current historical project is about assigning or attributing agency to the afflicted and the lower classes, this seems to end at the ability to rescue oneself from one’s circumstances. In the academy, agency is all about resisting the structures of oppression, not about opportunities for individual improvement.
By writing about those historical injustices, the story goes, we will open the eyes of our current students and society, so that remaining injustices will be fought and conquered. This is not the explicit intent of academic writing on history, but it underlies many of the arguments. (One can most easily detect this by noting the handful of asides in books referencing current circumstances. They almost universally point in that direction.)
There is a neat correlation between the materialism of the historical analysis and the implications for policy today. If historically, socioeconomic factors have dictated outcomes exclusively, then there is no justifiable place for designing policies and government that foster “virtue” in an effort to combat social ills. Therefore, any strings attached to anti-poverty programs are just expressions of resentment from the privileged classes; what the poor really need, under this analysis, is money and support from government. Considering the role of “virtue” in these discussions is, at best, naive, and at worst, thinly-veiled discrimination.
Returning to our two articles, as their point of departure, both Badger and Milbank focus on Missouri’s House Bill 813, which aims to restrict people from using food-stamps to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.” This bill in particular feels mean-spirited. I cringed when I read this anecdote in Milbank’s column:
“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs” with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, [Republican state legislator Rick Brattin] explained, according to The Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”
Bills designed to put “strings” on aid should never be about punishing the poor. Poverty is not a crime, and people who are poor should not be blamed for their condition. The “surf and turf” bill, as Milbank deems it, is not a good bill under this standard.
But the broader argument seems to come from the current academic perspective on poverty: its causes are socioeconomic, so its solutions must be socioeconomic. The idea that there are other factors that could better the condition of the poor–ones that do not show up in the history or the literature because they are intangible–is simply not discussed. But this view is unnecessarily narrow. In something as complex and multicausal as poverty, it is conceivable that by limiting the scope of our analysis, we are missing texture and key factors behind such phenomena.
Indeed, we cannot go to the archives or the datasets for that extra texture; we must go mainly to philosophy and passed-down wisdom. There is no regression analysis that will tell us that Aristotelian virtues like temperance and prudence are good foundations for a society that should cut through all of our legislation; we are only guessing. But we are guessing with millennia of lived experience on our side.
For example, in her excellent The Up Side of Down, Megan McArdle writes about Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program, known as HOPE. The HOPE program is targeted at drug offenders and offers a substantial increase in the number of random drug tests over the standard probation program. Violators are put in jail for a few days, without exception. But this is in contrast to the standard program, which sees probationers accruing violations and eventually winding up back in prison for much longer sentences. As McArdle puts it, “the best way to fight crime is not harsher punishment, it is inevitable punishment” (McArdle, 225).
HOPE is far, far more paternalistic than the standard parole system. But the logic is sound for poverty programs. At its core, HOPE aims to foster virtues like temperance, forbearance, and prudence by linking personal feedback systems more directly to conduct. The person who develops those habits will not get out of poverty by default, but combined with well-targeted aid, they stand a better chance than the person who just gets the aid alone. There may not be concrete historical evidence on this, but one would not expect to see such evidence when dealing with something so nebulous.
I am not suggesting that anti-poverty legislation should not include funding. But we have a responsibility to keep the idea of building virtue in mind when crafting legislation, and specifically anti-poverty legislation. This may be a form of paternalism, but the view that poor people cannot abide certain strings that are designed to help them borders on infantilization. If poor people need the most help from society–and if we agree that governments at various levels have a role to play in providing that help–then assistance should be more comprehensive than simple transfer payments.
Lastly, if limited resources mean that these programs can only be implemented for people below a certain income level, then the programs should be limited, but not eliminated from consideration. To dispense with the logic of such programs because they cannot feasibly be universal does not make sense; it is a companion to arguments that care more about inequality than about the standard of living and growth.
We can and should try to fight poverty–and other social problems–on multiple fronts. That means socioeconomic aid, as well as sometimes attaching strings to that aid. The idea that simple, no-strings-attached cash transfers are the only way to help poor people get out of poverty is as ideological a position as one that advocates for moral betterment alone.