Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Poor Policy: Bloomberg's Mexican Hat Dance

The Gotham Gazette is writing on Mayor Bloomberg's new approach to the war on poverty-paying for good behavior in order to create a change in the attitudes that lead to the perpetuation of poverty. As we have said before, this is not a very good idea at all. In fact the proposed cure here can easily become worse than the disease.

In the first place, as has been pointed out, the use of the Mexican example makes no sense at all. The Mexican woman who are paid to take their kids to a doctor would have no ability to do so because of the feared loss of income from the jobs that they are doing. These are real world obstacles that can be rationally overcome by the Mexican subsidy program. And let's face it, the best poverty program Mexico has is the hundred yard dash across the US border-not exactly what we should be using as a role model

This situation has no American analogue. The folks here who are failing to avail themselves of school or services are behaving this way because of a certain set of internal attitudes that used to be pejoratively known as the "culture of poverty." If we pay them to behave differently, what will this do to their current set of beliefs and behaviors? What about the folks in the same set of social circumstances who are trying to behave in ways that will enable them and their children to succeed?

Of course, paying people to behave properly is not only a slippery slope-will we have to raise the stipends periodically to insure compliance?-but will inevitably lead to the creation of a social welfare structure that will be more concerned with self-perpetuation than any dramatic solution of endemic poverty. And it goes without saying that the tax payers will be asked to pick up the exorbitant tab if this social experiment has its option picked up by government when the private subsidies lapse.

And let's make no mistake about it, despite what the mayor might say, paying people to behave better is not capitalism-it is simply another variant of the tired social welfare mentality. While it is true that this is out-of-the box thinking, it is in no way comparable to the courageous decision, embodied in the 1996 welfare reform act, to insist that those seeking assistance must work.

So let's hope that the experiment goes no further than its current philanthropic incarnation-with George Soros at the helm for Pete's sake. What needs to be guarded against here is the possibility that the chosen evaluators-MDRC-will hot wire its analysis of the experiment. A great deal of independent oversight is needed here.