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Perverse incentives

This might be a difficult/angering topic for some of you.

There's a politics/general conversation meetup I attend once a month. One of the topics that came up today was the issue of welfare mothers; this comes up often because the leader of the group (and a few of the other members; it's a big mix, politically) sees it as a major issue.

I spent some time volunteering for shelters, and have known people with a diversity of income levels; I've only seen a little bit of abuse of social welfare programmes, and I generally don't see it as a huge problem. As I've stated many times, I believe that we are obliged to provide people with at least the basics regardless of if they work; maybe not a comfortable life, but at least food, shelter, healthcare, and security, and anyone who is willing to work is obliged more. I am also not committed to providing them using any particular mechanism provided whatever mechanism is used works well enough. At least on the "principle of justice" level. Anyhow, the leader of the group also has some experience along these lines, and expresses concerns that some people have children as a means to get around welfare restrictions, with the increased aid that comes per child helping them live a nicer life without working much or at all. He then asserts that some states have decided not to pay increased benefits for children beyond the first.

There was some consensus of the group that the welfare thing is a big problem, and a general consensus among the conservatives there that no additional benefits beyond the first child is a good step and that welfare should be limited in duration. Some of them suggested that mandatory implanted birth control might be a reasonable precondition to continued aid. The liberals in the group generally don't have solutions, as they think any action there is unacceptable.

Supposing I accept that it's a big enough problem, I have similar discomforts with my fellow liberals in the group that the proposed mechanisms (implanted birth control, limited funds to raise a child, time limits, etc) are not acceptable, but what I proposed seem to bother everyone; I think the most elegant solution to remove the perverse incentive is to terminate custody of the children beyond a certain number; it removes any financial benefit to the would-be parent, it provides an emotional cost to the parent that goes strongly against the perverse incentive, it takes a child out of a situation where (if we accept the framing provided by the argument, which we don't have to) children are had for financial reasons, and it hopefully would lead to better parenting (either through boarding school or adoption). However, I would not support this plan without the support of:

  1. Free and ready access to contraceptives across the nation
  2. Free and ready access to early-term abortion across the nation
  3. Grandfathering and some type of a stopgap plan for bad situations created under the current system
  4. Boarding schools up to the task of raising children when suitable adoptive parents are not in sufficient supply
I don't believe in strong notions of custody. I never have. Neglectful or bad parents should not expect custody of their children to continue, and society has the right to educate children through public schooling. Social Workers should be able to intervene in various ways when parenting problems occur, and there should be help for parents in learning effective parenting. Parental custody should be seen as a reasonably strong default but not a right, and it should not resemble ownership of the children.

With regards to the implanted contraceptives, I am generally uncomfortable with the government requiring surgery or medicine of people (with the exception of psych meds, and even then such requirements should be only done in rare cases), even if the requirement amounts to bargaining for a reduced sentence in crime or continued provision of a social service. WRT eliminating additional support for children beyond the first, that risks impoverishing the children; in general with dealing with incentives and tough support situations, I don't want to punish the innocent nor reward the guilty, and ending custody seems cleaner than seeing kids raised in poverty.

I am generally willing to make tough decisions when I think that not doing so leads to social harm. Some people have ethics such that they would never do some harm that would lead to less total harm in the world; I generally reject that. It bugs me that the other liberals were unwilling to try to solve the problem because they might have to support a remedy that would be uncomfortable. I still wonder whether we're framing or understanding these issues sufficiently to really offer solutions to them though.



I really wish I had been there because I don't think either side of the discussion was very well informed. A few useful tidbits:
1) Temporary Assistance For Needy Families HAS been time-limited since Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform act.
2) Most families receiving TANF do not have more than two children. The large welfare family is an inaccurate stereotype.
(Sorry, posted prematurely)
3) The additional income beyond child 2 or 3 is meager relative to the cost of caring for a child. It would be unlikely to increase the parents' standard of living.
Someone with a better grasp of the relevant laws/policies would've been very handy there.

One of the dilemmas with having #3 as policy is how to adequately support those additional kids if they show up without encouraging their existence.
Don't mean to spam you but I've got one more thing. You stated "the liberals didn't have any solutions." Did no one bring up any sort of "employment on demand" program option? It's hard to blame people for "not working" when the job market is very competitive in most places.
Nobody did. We desperately needed more policywonkery there, and my knowledge of legal/policy topics relating to this kind of welfare wasn't sufficient for the need.
I'm not all that policywonky myself. But absent employment on demand (in addition to heavily subsidized daycare on demand), shaming or punishing people for being reliant on public benefits just doesn't make sense.
When we meet, if you're interested, I'll relate to you a few real-life examples of how people become poor and dependent on assistance.
More data at least would've been nice; that's one of the big parts of being an effective policywonk on an area.

We can chat about that the next time you're here, sure, although I met a fair number of people during my time volunteering for Faith Mission.
I am pretty sure mandatory implanted BC would make it way harder for me to hold down a job, what with the severe mood swings and constant early-morning nausea (leading to lack of sleep) that I had with my previous BC method, which had similar levels of system-wide hormones as Norplant/Implanon. Which is one major reason to not mess with people's bodies: side effects are no joke.
Yeah, plus there's a certain body horror in mandatory medical procedures and implants that I would rather steer miles away from invoking. Particularly in societies that have great diversity in perspectives. Whatever the solution to perverse incentives, provided it's a real problem, I really wasn't inclined to go with one along those lines.

OTOH, there are some conservatives that get something almost akin to that when I've argued that they and society have a duty to children rather than the parents have effective ownership of them in a my-home-is-my-castle and society-ends-where-my-house-begins kind of world. Culture is weird. But I'm more inclined to try to avoid body horror than avoid impinging on the castle mentality; the castle mentality too often is used to justify society turn a blind eye on terrible social ills (domestic violence, rape in marriage, child abuse/neglect, and so on).
Oh sure, pretty much all my opinions on reproductive rights were originally created on a foundation of body horror. But I like to point out the "purely rational" arguments as well. In this case: anyone who thinks that mandatory BC can be part of a recipe for "productive members of society" is neglecting to take into account the potential side effects of strong doses of hormones.
I wish men in general learned more about female biology and the things women have to deal with. I was reasonably knowledgable about and comfortable with these things because I have three sisters and was raised more by my mom than my dad, but I've been kind of surprised how little of that knowledge is mandatory (or even common) among people who are not female and didn't have sisters.

I wonder if Akin's comment was him being really misinformed, terribly bad misspeaking, or something else.

Edited at 2012-08-20 03:17 pm (UTC)
I believe the "misinformation" explanation. I've heard variants on the "real rape cannot result in pregnancy" meme many times before; as far as I can tell, it's appallingly widespread. (You've probably seen lists like this.)

It's also possible that he himself is not that much of an idiot but is hoping his constituents are, but I personally think that's less likely.

Edited at 2012-08-20 04:42 pm (UTC)
If this was intentional, Akin badly miscalculated. But I agree with you that it's unlikely; I've seen worryingly low science literacy among elected representatives from backwards areas of the country.
"The liberals in the group generally don't have solutions, as they think any action there is unacceptable."

The liberals in the group don't have solutions because the problem doesn't exist. I believe having an extra kid gets you an extra $90 in TANF and around $40 extra in food stamps a month. That's just over $1500 a year for the five years you can be on TANF, or a total of $7,800.

The average cost of raising a kid from birth to age 18, for a middle-income family, is $226,920. That doesn't include saving for college. Obviously, low-income people make do with less, but they don't make do with $7,800.

Anyone suggesting people have kids for the welfare benefits is just grossly out of touch with reality.

"I think the most elegant solution to remove the perverse incentive is to terminate custody of the children beyond a certain number"

And do what with them? Our foster system is already overloaded. And let's get real, it's an awful system that opens kids up to a very high risk of abuse. Any social worker can tell you, a kid's biological parents have to be pretty amazingly terrible for the kid to be better off in the system. Kids are definitely not better off in foster care than they are with a parent/parents whose only fault is being unemployed.

(On a side note, it occurs to me that you might not know I have an MSW. I never worked with kids, but I did notice when I worked in a correctional facility that a striking number of my clients were "graduates" of the foster system.)

Edited at 2012-08-20 08:16 pm (UTC)
This MSW agrees with all of the above. Also, we shouldn't assume that being unemployed, receiving public assistance, OR number of children are proxies for "good parent" or "bad parent." There are surely single parents with 3 kids receiving public assistance who are loving, attentive, supportive, involved in their children's education, and firm when necessary. And there absolutely are married, middle and upper-income working parents who abuse or neglect their kids.
On the second point, that depends on our funding/fixing public childrearing institutions (ideally something along the lines of a boarding school). I would hope at least that in foster care they're getting adequate food; I am concerned that someone on unemployment for sufficiently long couldn't manage that.

You are right that this situation might be uncommon; that was my general impression, while most of the conservatives in the conversation seemed to think it was probably the case about half the time. Having solid data on at least the children point would've been helpful for the discussion, even if quantifying "gaming the system" is a lot harder (particularly because my notion of the proper role of the system is reasonably broad, while the conservatives wanted it to be an emergency-only tightly-controlled path; I suspect I wouldn't agree with them on what it would mean to game it)
"ideally something along the lines of a boarding school"

That could possibly work for teenagers, although I wouldn't be surprised if you have to be pretty well-adjusted to begin with to do well in a boarding school. It would not work for younger kids. You're talking about fostering/adopting out infants here.

"I would hope at least that in foster care they're getting adequate food; I am concerned that someone on unemployment for sufficiently long couldn't manage that."

I am, again, not an expert on child development, though I did study it a little in grad school and I'm, you know, a mom. But everything I know indicates that being in a loving home with occasional lapses in nutrition is vastly better for kids than getting three square meals a day and no close relationship with a parental figure.

"You are right that this situation might be uncommon"

That's quite an understatement. I would say that the system simply cannot be gamed in the way that was being claimed. The amount of "welfare" you get per additional child is so ridiculously small that it's inevitable for a poor family to fall into worse poverty for each additional kid they have.