All of this writing and data analysis is a lot of work! So after more than five years of posting, I've finally launched a Patreon to help pay the bills.

6/11/19

The Tax Policy Center's dubious scholarship on who "deserves" welfare

Leonard Burman, in a new Tax Policy Center paper, argues for work requirements on welfare:
Political scientists have found ample evidence that people all over the world categorize people in terms of "deservedness" (Peterson et al. 2011; van Oorschot 2000, 2006). Most people are willing to help someone who is unlucky but are less eager to support someone who they perceive as lazy...Thus, a work-based tax credit would be much more likely to win public support than an unrestricted cash grant (such as UBI).
In my experience it's often a good idea to look at the scholarship people cite when they're trying to rationalize placing conditions on help for the poor, so I decided to take a look at the papers Burman refers us to.


PAPER 1: Peterson et. al. 2010

Burman is using this study to suggest that if welfare recipients aren't working, they'll be dismissed as lazy and undeserving of help. But here's what the study says:
Gilens (1999: 169) finds that the primary determinant of white Americans’ opposition to welfare is their perception of blacks as lazy... (26)
Judgments about who "deserves" welfare do not, that is, simply come from a factual assessment of who is working - they also emerge directly from irrational biases like racism. Burman, however, cites this paper as if the grotesque notion of "deservingness" that it presents is one that policymakers should work to accommodate.


PAPER 2: Van Oorschot 2000

Again: Burman points to this paper as evidence that welfare recipients are more likely to be seen as "deserving" if they are burdened with work requirements. But Van Oorschot's findings are much broader: historically, the people who are seen as "deserving" of welfare have included
  • "people who belong to 'us'. In modern societies this criterion might result in an unwillingness to support needy people from ethnic minorities or foreign residents in general..."
  • "The decent and embarrassed poor who hide their misery and ask for nothing are seen as deserving..."
  • "people in need who respond gratefully to help...[EG with a] smile of thanks, compliance and gratefulness..."
Presumably, Burman would agree that we should not restrict welfare to particular ethnic groups, or impose upon recipients humiliating "gratitude" requirements, simply to increase the program's popularity. Presumably, he would agree that we should fight for programs that defy these popular biases instead of trying to accommodate them; nothing in these papers suggests that this is somehow an impossible task. So why does he point to Van Oorschot as if this paper supports the imposition of a work requirement? If it calls for that, then clearly it calls for accommodating all kinds of other monstrous ideas about who "deserves" welfare, too.


PAPER 3: Van Oorschot 2006 

This study takes a similar approach to Van Oorschot's 2000 paper - and similarly finds that some groups are seen as more deserving of welfare of others. And once again, these groups do not simply include the idle or lazy; here, the author finds that it is "immigrants [who are seen] as least deserving of all".

That finding leads Van Oorschot to a striking conclusion. Such ideas about who "deserves" welfare, based as they are on the identity of the recipient, present a "risk": they foster an "Us versus Them" mentality that could affect "the legitimacy of the total welfare system". But that's not the only "Us versus Them" dynamic the author is worried about:
in neo-liberal and communitarian thinking about welfare, which is popular among policy elites...individual responsibility of citizens is strongly stressed. Citizens are nowadays expected to be active and provide for themselves...If blamed, there is no deserving of support, and no need for a comprehensive welfare state. Here also, the future legitimacy and character of the European welfare states might be recognized in the present-day US welfare state. (38)
To sum up: Burman points to three studies to support his argument that we should build welfare policy around popular notions about who "deserves" it. All three papers, however, remind us that popular notions about who "deserves" welfare should often be resisted rather than accommodated, since (for example) they are often obscenely racist. And the third paper explicitly warns us that welfare policies which distinguish between the deserving and undeserving feed into a logic that breaks solidarity and threatens the entire welfare state.

Remarkably, that third paper points directly to policy elites in the US and their focus on who is "deserving" as a cautionary tale. Burman, citing this paper as support for work requirements, can only hope that we don't actually read it.