Government to Welfare Recipients: Get Lost

One of my favorite activities when I’m traveling is to go for a long jog through a foreign city. It’s a safe, pleasant way to cover a lot of ground and still maintain spectator status.

Every time I’m in a new city, I plan a 10k route on the hotel map, marking lefts and rights and trying to see as many parks as possible in 45 minutes.

And every time I implement my route, I get hopelessly lost.

I’ve unintentionally jogged between domino highrises in Prague and through a strangely silent bazaar in South Beirut. I once accidentally ran a half marathon in London because I ran west for 45 minutes thinking it was north.

These accidental detours usually end with me giving up on my sweaty map and just asking a pedestrian for directions. I know the name of a train station or some other landmark near my hotel, and I ask people which way I need to go to get there. Every time I have this conversation, it goes pretty much like this:

Me: Excuse me, I’m trying to get to [landmark]
Resident: Oh, you’re miles away.
Me: I know, it’s pretty far. Can you tell me what direction it is, so I can start heading back?
Resident: It’s terribly far away. It’s not smart to be jogging without knowing where you are.
Me: I agree. Can you tell me what direction it is?
Resident: It’s really very far. You should have brought a map with you.

I invariably have to go through three or four cycles of ‘you shouldn’t be here’ before I get to ‘here’s how you get where you need to go.’

I’ve been thinking about this as a metaphor for the way we think about social policy. Every person in need of welfare payments, unemployment benefits, old-age pension, disability, etc, are basically people in places they shouldn’t be. Every unemployed autoworker should have seen the hollowing-out of their profession coming, and begun developing other skills. Retiring workers should have spent their productive years saving money. Single moms should have known about birth control, had an abortion, whatever.

It’s easy to look at people receiving social welfare and think ‘they should have considered the consequences before they got pregnant, dropped out of high school, didn’t get a vocational degree,’ etc. It’s easy to be the person saying ‘why are you here in the first place?’

This is understandable on an individual level, but at the scale of a population, governments need to be utterly unconcerned with why people are in the situation they’re in. You’re 21 years old and pregnant with your third child? … How can we help?

Obviously government has a legitimate interest in reducing the number of unemployed autoworkers, teen moms, poor pensioners and so on. But those are systemic interventions, not individual ones.

Governments make systemic efforts to reduce rates of smoking, for example, through taxes, education and age limits. Governments don’t withhold treatment of lung cancer, however, on the grounds that patients knew the risks, and should have acted differently when they could. Yet that’s the guiding principle behind much of our social policy.

I’m not saying this to be ideological, or bleeding heart about reducing suffering. I think there’s an economic case to be made for this. Retributive social policy (you shouldn’t be pregnant again, therefore you’re not entitled to child benefits) just perpetuates the systemic problems that end up costing taxpayers more in the end.

It’s inarguably a bad economic decision for that 21 year old to go through with her third pregnancy. She shouldn’t be here. But wouldn’t the economically intelligent policy be to support her children to the extent possible, so they don’t make the same mistake? Doing otherwise places the principle of retribution above the practical benefits of trying to get the most societal gain from her children possible.

It’s the same thing with the unemployed autoworker. Yes, they should have developed job skills beyond low-grade manufacturing. But what makes more economic sense? Punishing them through barely-scraping-by unemployment benefits? Or enough assistance to help them transition to a new profession and, if necessary, a new city, where they can be economically productive?

I know the counterargument to this is that generous social policy just encourages people to have that third child, to drop out of high school, to retire early. But surely there are ways to discourage those beyond perpetuating the factors that drive them in the first place. Government should be in the business of getting you where you need to go, not  telling you why you shouldn’t be lost.

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Filed under America, Serious

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