Karelis argues that being poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all.
“The core of the problem has not been self-discipline or a lack of opportunity,” Karelis says. “My argument is that the cause of poverty has been poverty.”
The upshot of this for policy makers, Karelis believes, is that they don’t need to fret so much about the fragility of the work ethic among the poor. In recent decades, experts and policy makers all along the ideological spectrum have worried that the more aid the government gives the poor, the less likely they are to work to provide for themselves. David Ellwood, an economist and the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has called this “the helping conundrum.” It was this concern that drove the Clinton administration’s welfare reform efforts.
But, according to Karelis, that argument is exactly backward. Reducing the number of economic hardships that the poor have to deal with actually make them more, not less, likely to work, just as repairing most of the dents on a car makes the owner more likely to fix the last couple on his own. Simply giving the poor money with no strings attached, rather than using it, as federal and state governments do now, to try to encourage specific behaviors – food stamps to make sure money doesn’t get spent on drugs or non-necessities, education grants to encourage schooling, time limits on benefits to encourage recipients to look for work – would be just as effective, and with far less bureaucracy.
With apologies for the repost: this block of the article is more central than the one I posted before.