Cautions for the New Paternalism
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post, January 5, 1992.
Across the country, governors and state legislators are pushing to
use welfare benefits to encourage recipients to stay in school or to get a job,
to send their children to school, to take their children for preventive health
care, to have fewer children and even to get or stay married. That the
proponents of this "new paternalism," as it is called, are both Democrats and
Republicans, liberals and conservatives, attests to its substantive and
political appeal. But there's a real danger that the states may go too far, too
As The Post's Dec. 18 editorial suggested, it makes sense to
condition welfare payments on appropriate behavior. Growing anxiety about the
dependent and self-destructive behavior of the poor -- be it dropping out of
school, teen pregnancy, nonwork, or drug addiction -- gives urgency to more
decisive attempts to reshape the behavior of welfare recipients. This was the
critical underpinning of the 1988 welfare reform act, which sought to get
welfare recipients to work by tying benefits to employment or study requirements
while providing transitional health benefits and child care to those returning
Unfortunately, many of the proposals now being made could end up
hurting the poor, not helping them, and might set back more reasonable efforts
to alter dysfunctional behaviors. So before the process goes much further, some
guiding principles would be helpful:
First, the new paternalism should not be an excuse for balancing
state budgets on the backs of the poor. Welfare has never been a very popular
program, and media images of festering inner-city conditions, by reinforcing
racial stereotypes, only further undermine public support. But a more immediate
impetus comes from rapidly growing welfare rolls combined with increasing
pressures to cut state deficits. Most new proposals highlight how much money
they are expected to save.
Second, the behavioral change should be within the reach of the
recipient. It is one thing to reduce the welfare benefits of teenage parents who
refuse to attend school, as Wisconsin and Ohio do. But is it fair to penalize
adult parents for their teenagers' refusal to attend school, as has also been
proposed? Any parent who has tried to get a teenager to clean up a bedroom knows
how difficult it is to get adolescents to do anything they don't want to do.
Third, behavioral expectations should be well rooted in public
support. Proposals, like Maryland's, to have parents obtain preventive health
care for their children or suffer a 30 percent reduction in welfare seems
unambiguously beneficial to the child, and, if reasonably implemented, would
likely enjoy wide support.
Fourth, policy makers should beware of unintended consequences.
The history of social engineering is strewn with examples of perverse
consequences for even the most apparently benign programs. The negative income
experiments of the 1970s, for example, resulted in significantly higher rates of
nonwork. What if denying increased welfare to young mothers who have additional
children, as proposed in California and Wisconsin, leads to more abortions? Many
of the people most eager to discourage welfare mothers from having more children
are also the ones most likely to be horrified by higher abortion rates.
Fifth, determining compliance should be easy and fair. Subjective,
case-by-case determinations would be a nightmare to administer and likely result
in recurring news stories about bad decision making. Thus, Maryland officials
have abandoned their effort to condition welfare on the payment of rent,
deciding that they could not adequately police payments.
Sixth, rewarding positive behavior can be more useful than
imposing penalties. Benefits send the same signal as penalties with fewer
drawbacks. Tangible rewards for doing the right thing can uplift and encourage;
penalties threaten to discourage recipients who may already feel psychologically
beaten down. As the aphorism teaches, you can catch more bears with honey than
Seventh, benefits (or penalties) should encourage the
internalization of long-term changes in behavior. Large penalties raise the
stakes so much that bureaucrats and the public recoil from imposing them. More
important, just as behavior is continuing, so should the benefit or penalty be
additive. Thus, all the major proposals aimed at improving school attendance
raise or lower welfare payments on a monthly basis in response to the recipients
Finally, humility and caution should infuse the new paternalism.
The problems faced by the poor make action necessary, but too many questions
remain unanswered to rush headlong into radically new programs. Tentative as it
may seem, states should adopt a step-by-step approach, securing sound success
and avoiding over-promising and overreaching. After all, we are tinkering with
the lives of the most deprived and the least powerful among us.
The writer is a
resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was prepared
with the assistance of Amy Fowler.
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