The Paradox of Public Assistance

It’s time to acknowledge the pragmatic problems of welfare



Let’s put ideology aside for a moment. One might not think it’s morally or politically justifiable to take from one person in order to help another. But for now, let’s ask another question: Does it help?

A lot of people see the existence of "poverty amid plenty," wherein a few people have acquired a lot of wealth while the overwhelming majority struggles to make ends meet. The standard call is to provide some means of transferring those resources from the haves to the have-nots, either through a progressive tax policy or via some direct transfer program.

The problem with these policies is obviously not in their stated goals. Who could argue against the desire to help people? Nor is it, entirely, the coercive nature of redistribution. The real problem comes in the ability of welfare advocates to actually reduce poverty in an effective and long-lasting manner.

World Coyne

In his latest book, Doing Bad by Doing Good, Chris Coyne discusses problems with delivering effective humanitarian aid to other countries. Coyne identifies two potential problems: the planner's problem and the incentive problem.

Briefly, the planner's problem refers to the impossibility of people outside of a society actually to possess the information required to assist in fostering continued economic development. The incentive problem refers to the idea that the planners may face perverse incentives to go ahead and do something that the planner's problem suggests is impossible to start with.

These points are all well and good, and should be well received at least by readers of this publication. But I think we can go further to urge that the problems Coyne identifies apply equally to issues related to domestic intervention.


The people who advocate most strongly for poverty relief programs are not, in fact, people who are poor. Rather, they are people who are typically either politicians seeking reelection or wealthy people who have some overwhelming desire to do something (usually they want to get other people to give them money to do something). They are not poor, but rather they simply do not like seeing poor people suffer and feel some desire to help. However, because they are not poor themselves, they have absolutely no idea what it is that poor people actually want.

Do they want shelter, clothing, and food? Yes. Do they want education, hygiene, and employment? Of course. But in what order, how much, and of what type? In a world of scarcity, the answers to these questions are of crucial importance if we are to find ways to help the most people as quickly and effectively as possible. And yet, the answers to these questions are wholly unknowable to outside observers.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, the incentive problem that the planners face also applies to domestic intervention. Politicians are people who, just like us, are primarily concerned with helping themselves. Given their position, what is in their interest might sometimes in be the interest of the “general public” (providing genuine public goods, the rule of law, etc.) but as James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock rightfully point out in their groundbreaking book, The Calculus of Consent, this is not guaranteed to be true at all times and in all cases. In fact, it may be the case that as a direct result of political involvement, incentives may direct their behavior in ways that enrich concentrated interests and impoverish poor people even more.

The War on Poverty

Take, for example, Lyndon Johnson's famous declaration of war on poverty in 1964. If we take seriously the claims that the middle class is shrinking and that the poor are becoming increasingly separated from the rich in terms of real income, can one claim victory, much less gained ground, in such a war?

One answer is that the disparity might be much, much worse without government intervention—that is, the rich would be even richer and the poor would be even poorer. But another possibility is that the war on poverty directly contributes to a burgeoning underclass. How can we adjudicate between these positions?

On the surface, giving people aid seems like a straightforward proposition. We observe people suffering and then send resources to them to alleviate that suffering. On the other hand, as Buchanan pointed out in 1975, we run into problems in which the aid designed to alleviate poverty actually perpetuates it, creating dependency. This dependency, in turn, means that an increasing number of people derive the majority of their income from aid.

Paid to Be Poor

That some of the poor get most of their income from the government is not to argue that welfare recipients are lazy or don’t wish to work. Rather it suggests that the incentives they face may make them reluctant to accept employment opportunities at offered wages. We can think through this proposition logically: Suppose I offer you $240 per week in financial aid while you are between jobs. You would be receiving that money for zero hours of work per week. Being an honest person, you go out and look for work, eventually finding a job that pays you $8 per hour, or $320 per week working full time. Should you take that job?

On the one hand, you would receive more money by taking that job than you would by accepting the aid. However, economics teaches us the value in thinking at the margin. Doing so reveals that you would only receive an additional $120 per week in exchange for your 40 hours of work. In other words, taking into account your opportunity cost, you would really only be earning $3 per hour! While I certainly cannot speak for everyone, I feel reasonably confident in saying that few people in this country value their time at only $3 per hour. Realizing this, it is no puzzle why people receiving aid tend to stay unemployed for so long. The Cato Institute recently published a study offering evidence of the work versus welfare trade-off, which can be found here.

Politics and Perquisites

Now that we understand why domestic aid programs may lead to the perpetuation of poverty among the poor, we’re ready to discuss how they may lead to the enrichment of the already wealthy. When politicians decide to try to do something about an issue, one of the first things that they do is convene special hearings about the issue. Here, they call upon the testimonies of experts to try to figure out (1) what can be done and then (2) how best to do it.

The problem here is that the very people who are best equipped to detail how to solve the problem will typically explain that they themselves (or the people that they represent) are in fact the best to solve the problem and should be awarded the contract to solve the problem. We see this in government all the time. Take, for example, the company that was placed in charge of rebuilding Iraq after the US invasion in 2006: Halliburton, which was formerly run by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Is it any wonder why this company was awarded these contracts? Kwame Kilpatrick, when he was mayor of Detroit, would routinely award offices and several perks to his friends and family members. Don’t forget about the legendary William Tweed, better known as "Boss Tweed." The point here is not that all politicians are corrupt, but that knowing a politician who is in a position to award perks puts you in good stead to be the recipient of largesse. And, of course, if that’s true, you have very good reasons to create incentives for the politician to steer favors in your direction. It is the nature of politics.

What to Do

Evidencing the failure of domestic aid to help combat poverty, Abigail Hall has an excellent article, forthcoming in the Journal of Private Enterprise, detailing the failure of the Appalachian Regional Commission. This line of research might lead one to the sobering conclusion that there is little that can be done to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

We can take away a couple of things from this type of work:

1) The limits of what can be directly achieved through political means of alleviating poverty; and

2) The idea that the expansion of opportunity ultimately drives economic growth and helps the poor.

Rather than focusing on giving poor people the resources to live well, we should instead focus on removing the barriers that prevent people from discovering ways to be productive. Doing so would not only provide them with the tools to lift themselves out of poverty, but would also provide the basis of dignity.



David Hebert is a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University. His research interests include public finance and property rights.

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