The Myth of Welfare Dependency

Why Do We Believe It?

Well-meaning people worry about it, while others use it as an argument against helping the poor. Some scholars have even written about it. And it has had a huge impact on public policy, justifying cutbacks in welfare programs. But last week, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, Abhijit Banerjee, released a paper with three colleagues that suggested it just wasn’t so. People actually benefit from the support of welfare and rebound.

After carefully assessing the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia, the researchers found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.” (See Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.)

It remains a strong idea, however, a form of folk wisdom, something akin to common sense in the public mind. But Professor Banerjee noted that “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts,” adding that the United States’ own experience with both welfare and its “reform” does not really support the charges.

So why do we hold to this conviction? What does believing this do for us that the truth would not?

To begin with, it suggests that we project onto the poor a perception of laziness. Do we dispose of our own sense of laziness by attributing it to the poor?

But are we, in fact, lazy and resentful of work? Most people offered a choice would choose work, along with the self-esteem and sense of belonging that comes along with it — not to mention the money.

It may be relevant that so many of us feel overworked, a fact that I wrote about on my blog last July: “Americans now put in an average of 112 more hours per year than the British, and 426 hours (over 10 weeks!) more than Germans.” We work harder that ever because corporations are reluctant to hire new workers, often preferring to redistribute the work of those they let go among those who remain. As economists have noted, this trend contributes to our continuing high rate of unemployment.

But it also means that we stay late at the office, work on weekends, give up vacations and comply as best we can with the increasing demands of our jobs. Our families suffer, our health declines, the happiness and pleasure we find in life erodes. Men often subtly boast about the demands of work, seeing that as a sign of their importance. Women typically are seen as suffering from the conflict between being mothers, wives and successful executives. But everyone feels it, and everyone suffers.

Maybe this is why we continue to think that the poor, given the chance, would choose to escape the demands of work. It may not be work itself we want to escape, projecting that desire onto the poor, but the taxing demands of overwork. We project it because we cannot change it, but we also cannot really complain or protest if it has become a sign of our value.

Work was once seen as more rewarding. It offered us careers, a stable place in society, security and self-esteem. But now, it is resuming its historic role as Adam’s curse, as we are doomed to live by the sweat of our brows.