Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bribing the poor

It is tacitly understood that most of the civil rights laws that were passed in the 1960s and 1970s were nothing more than bribery. All the legislation that eventually led to affirmative action mandates and expanded welfare benefits was designed primarily to keep the natives quiet, to mollify them, in the hopes that the prevailing rioting and other mayhem on the part of blacks would cease. The initial laws, amplified with promised goodies, offered incentives to the mobs to think twice before continuing to burn down neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods, by the way, were the very ones that members of the mobs lived in.

And so bribery on a massive scale was instituted under the camouflage of "justice" and "equality." Feckless whites, of course, would have agreed to any accommodation to end the disturbances and the threatened future chaos. Such whites might possibly have offered up their first born, as well as second born sons, in order to keep the peace. Keeping the peace, by any means necessary, was the order of the day. The thought that there were better means other than craven acquiescence never fluttered into their terrified souls.

All of this agitation and the consequent material rewards to blacks brought joy and delight to affluent middle class black elites who were, to use television journalist Tony Brown's stinging description of them, the "overseers of the bounty." As far as the race was concerned, declared Brown, the only role played by the black middle class is as "managers of resources allocated by government and corporate programs." Why risk your own resources by pooling capital to develop your own communities,
as so many blacks had done in the past, as well as every other ethnic group, when you can coerce substantial bonuses from a fearful government? Members of this well-off class, of course, always go to the front of the line with their pockets open, ready to become the "administrators" of the latest windfall, whenever the system deigns to dispense yet more gifts to the "downtrodden" poor.

A great many citizens may be familiar with this past history, but few know about the latest forms of bribery, as reported by Heather Mac Donald in Bribery Strikes Out:
It isn’t lack of opportunity that keeps poor people poor.
Mac Donald describes that which she calls "a dangerously misguided antipoverty program."

Begun in New York City in 2007, under the auspices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this unusual initiative, Opportunity NYC-Family Rewards, bestows cash awards primarily on single mothers and their children, in order to induce them to, well, behave better. The project is modeled on a program in Mexico designed to target agricultural peasants, in spite of the fact that, according to Mac Donald, "multigenerational urban poverty in America is far different from Third World rural poverty." Although difficult for the welfare industry to accept, she argues, "the lives of America’s underclass are characterized by a degree of disorganization that is rarely grasped or acknowledged." Following are excerpts:
• • •

The much-heralded initiative that inspired Bloomberg’s program was based on the theory that Mexican campesinos were so trapped in the daily struggle for survival that they couldn’t undertake behaviors that would help them escape poverty over the long term. Facing grinding economic pressures, parents pull their children out of school to help with the harvest; mothers don’t take their children to the doctor because they can’t wrest time away from work in the fields or at home. Oportunidades, as the Mexican initiative was called, tried to change the perceived zero-sum relationship between self-improvement and present income by paying Mexican farm families for taking actions in their long-term self-interest, such as school work and medical visits.

Bloomberg’s version of Oportunidades officially pretended that New York’s underclass faced similar tragic choices. The poor failed to “plan for the future” because they were “so focused on surviving,” the mayor explained when inaugurating the program. They were engaged in a “struggle” for the very basics of existence, he said. Opportunity NYC–Family Rewards would alleviate the immediate pressure for survival that allegedly prevented the inner-city poor from investing in their future by paying them for self-improving behavior, thus offsetting the purported opportunity cost of future-oriented actions.

Of course, it’s ludicrous to suppose that what keeps America’s inner-city residents poor across generations is a struggle for subsistence in an economy of limited opportunities. The main drivers of poverty in America are family breakdown (in 2004, single-parent households nationally were six times as likely to be poor as married families). ... The antisocial behaviors that contribute to multigenerational poverty also have nothing to do with suffocating economic pressures: very few inner-city students cut classes or drop out of school to help their parents work; they do so because their peer culture is toxic and because their parents exercise little control over their lives.

Nor does American poverty bear any resemblance to Third World poverty. New York City is awash in welfare programs that confer on the poor benefits that would be unthinkable in rural Mexico or Africa, such as free high-tech medical care, monthly welfare checks, and free or subsidized housing. Family Rewards is an add-on to an already generous safety net; the Mexican version is the safety net. New York’s poor also enjoy a clean, reliable water supply, a public health system that controls environmentally borne infectious disease, a sound transportation infrastructure, and the rule of law. ...

Nevertheless, lurking beneath the Family Rewards rhetoric about “our impoverished campesinos” was an implicit acknowledgment of a truth rarely spoken in antipoverty circles: it’s the behavior of the inner-city poor that perpetuates poverty, not just “structural inequalities,” rapacious capitalism, or racism. That covert acknowledgment was enough to earn the initiative the opprobrium of many in the traditional poverty industry.

But the program’s proposed cure is potentially worse than the disease: paying families for activities that are part of the normal repertoire of what it means to be a responsible parent or student. ... Elementary- and middle-school students who make progress on annual academic tests net their parents $300 and $350, respectively. High school students get $600 each year that they accumulate 11 course credits (the bare minimum to stay on track to graduate) and another $600 for each New York State Regents exam that they pass.

Parents are paid $25 for attending a parent-teacher conference or discussing their child’s test results with a teacher; they receive $50 for getting their child a library card. Taking advantage of taxpayer-subsidized Medicaid services, such as free medical checkups, brings a $200 annual windfall; simply maintaining free Medicaid insurance earns the recipient $20 a month. Working full-time earns an additional $150 a month beyond the existing salary. Seeking education and training while working at least ten hours a week could net a parent $3,000 over three years.

The hubris behind this menu of bribes is breathtaking. Working on the premise that American society didn’t sufficiently reward self-discipline, effort, and achievement, the Family Rewards architects decided that they needed to correct the inadequate signals that the economy and the culture sent to the poor. ... The problem is that the poor don’t respond to incentives that are already abundantly present. Nevertheless, convinced of their own superior capacities to engineer sound social signals, the program’s planners arbitrarily made up a schedule of payments that would induce a welfare mother, for example, to make sure that her child went to school every day. Is monthly school attendance worth $25 or $100? Is a single Regents exam worth $600 or $1,200? ...

Once the expectation of payment for morally and socially responsible actions became widespread, there would be no dislodging it. Poor children would make an effort in school not because their parents had instilled in them the importance of education but because of the expectation of immediate cash. Once word got out that some students in a school were getting paid for their study habits, trying to withhold payments from every child in that school or indeed from every school in the system would be nearly impossible. ...

Those who worried about the long-term consequences of the conditional cash transfers (CCTs) need not have done so, however. Contrary to the expectations of both its supporters and critics, the Bloomberg experiment had almost no effect on its participants’ behavior. ... The program had no effect on students’ attendance rates compared with those of students in the control group; it had no effect on average test scores or academic proficiency rates; it had no effect on high school students’ overall accumulation of course credits or successfully passed Regents exams; it had only a negligible effect on the rate at which parents sought a free annual checkup for themselves or their children compared with parents in the control group; and it had a negative effect on the rate at which parents sought education or training for themselves. ...

“The premise of conditional cash transfers is that the stresses of poverty cause people to make choices that are not in their long-term interest,” MDRC president Gordon Berlin said at the press conference announcing the interim results. He may have it backward. It is the inability of some people to make choices in their long-term interest that causes poverty, as sociologist Edward Banfield argued four decades ago in The Unheavenly City. The poor have short time horizons, Banfield wrote, the rich, very long ones. No external force can change those psychological dispositions. ...

But the best solution for poverty reduction is the one that is the least likely to pass the lips of liberal policy makers: marriage. As was already abundantly clear before the CCTs, single-parent households are the primary source of long-term poverty in New York City and the country. Looked at from a purely economic standpoint (the least relevant one), a married father provides his children with additional material support and manpower backup when all hell breaks out in a household, as it periodically will. A father also serves as a more credible authority figure than a mother, on average, something that boys particularly need.

Read complete article here.


Adrianna said...

In all the areas I've lived in, the underclass was mostly white, but the issues are the same.

I never bought the idea that poor children of any race were forced, at gunpoint, to spend time with known gang members, get pregnant, not do homework, or what have you. Nor could I understand why they were unable to take the bus to work, stay inside and do homework, etc. Rather, I got the impression that these negative behaviors were rites of passage for these youths and they were *proud* of these behaviors.

You may not have an ideal set of circumstances, and you may not get ideal results right away, but it's better to make those choices and wait for good results that *will* come eventually than to give up and make choices that you *know* will lead nowhere for the sake of paltry instant gratification. It could be in the form of money, approval, any form at all. But in the long-term, those decisions lead nowhere.

My favorite stories that liberals like to tell are "success" stories about poverty. Such-and-such escapes the ghetto by going to school and getting a job. The only catch is that they already have been to prison, had children out of wedlock, and most are *still* welfare- dependent, living in the ghetto, raising children in the same environment they were raised in. Why were they not responsible to begin with? In whose twisted mind are these stories about success?

Anyone here is free to accuse me of victim-blaming. If by victim-blaming you mean blaming people who are victims of their own bad decisions, then I suppose they would be right. The only task that remains is to convince me that this is a bad thing.

Elizabeth Wright said...

Adrianna wrote:
My favorite stories that liberals like to tell are "success" stories about poverty. Such-and-such escapes the ghetto by going to school and getting a job. The only catch is that they already have been to prison, had children out of wedlock, and most are *still* welfare- dependent, ... In whose twisted mind are these stories about success?

Such stories annoy the heck out of me. But if you're a publication, you can count on getting attention by filling your pages with such claptrap. White folks, especially, love these stories when they're about blacks. I've often wondered why anyone would be interested in hearing such miserable tales, instead of hearing the stories about the ghetto girls who did not get impregnated and went on to join the work force and live good lives, and the boys who refused to join in with the losers around them and made a real escape.

The radio network NPR just loves these kinds of stories. And the New York Times, on a regular basis, used to regale readers with endless features on these "struggling" folks. In fact, from the 1970s on, newspapers like the Times and Washington Post would do serial features (3- and 4-part) on the downtrodden po', in order to win prizes for these touching stories. Of course, this only fueled the appetites of those black elites who spend their lives profiting off the woes of the poor. The more such stories were published, the more opportunities these affluent blacks had to get funding to set up and "administer" yet another poverty program.

I guess it's unprofitable to tell REAL success stories of those who escaped before the illegitimate babies and the jail terms became a way of life. Where's the drama in that?