In the New York Times on Tuesday, I made the case for paying a generous new family benefit to households that have earned income of their own. A single mother with two young children, who had worked part-time at the minimum wage the prior year, could receive $800 in cash each month — nearly $10,000 annually. Little did I know, this “monstrous” idea is akin to vicious child abuse and marks me as “a profoundly evil man” for distinguishing between working families and the non-working poor. With alarming speed, an insistence that all families receive no-strings-attached cash has become table stakes in the Left’s bizarro discourse. As with social issues, where positions held by Barack Obama now constitute unconscionable bigotry, long-running and bipartisan views about fighting poverty lie suddenly beyond the pale.
At Jacobin, Matt Bruenig titled his response, “Oren Cass Is Insisting That Starving Some Kids Is Important for Society” and warned that I think families “need some tough love (hunger and homelessness).” Substack blogger Will Wilkinson titled his response to the proposal “Against Child Hostages” and featured a photo of a child cowering in a corner from a chain-wielding hand. The caption: “Don’t hit me Mr. Cass! Mommy is picking up a shift at Chili’s, I promise!” How recent is this attitude? When I spoke alongside Wilkinson at a Kennedy School panel on “big economic ideas [to] solve economic inequality” in 2018, his “big idea” was . . . zoning reform.
The problem, you see, is that my proposal for a Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) does not go as far as Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, which would offer nearly universal payments — thus including families disconnected from work entirely. The Fisc caps a family’s annual benefit at its prior year’s earnings, so no earned income would mean no benefit, though the existing safety net would remain intact. Still, the Fisc is more generous for lower-income households than what Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have proposed, which is in turn more generous than anything else seriously considered in recent memory on the right-of-center. It is also more generous than anything Hillary Clinton ever proposed, or Barack Obama, or . . . one gets the picture.
This question — whether cash benefits should go to households regardless of work — promises to be a central debate in the coming years. To be clear, the question is not whether to help those who cannot support themselves; it is how to do so. If this week’s efforts are any indication, the debate is one the Left has positioned itself to lose catastrophically. They are staking themselves to commitments that are empirically wrong and politically foolish.
One is that we should make no distinction between households that are attempting to support themselves through work and those that are not — apparently even the category of “non-working poor” is an offensive one. The subtext evinces an attitude that connection to the labor force isn’t all that important anyway. This thinking may earn nods of approval in some affluent circles, but it is understandably unpopular with the vast majority of Americans who are working to support themselves and take pride in that effort. It is also toxic to struggling families, for whom having a job remains quite important to prospects of future success.
Another unwise commitment is the premise that children are adorable free agents who should receive payments because they cannot work themselves — little disabled people whose support is fundamentally an obligation of the state rather than of their parents. The problem with this thinking becomes immediately obvious when trying to craft a “child allowance,” which cannot be paid to the children . . . because they are not little disabled people; they are children. While this facet of life makes many progressives uncomfortable, the unavoidable reality remains that people are not atomized individuals whose every need the state can meet; the institution of the family is indispensable, and the bonds and obligations between its members should be protected and reinforced, not lamented or ignored.
This is a major fault line between Left and Right, and has been for centuries. As Yuval Levin characterizes the conservative view in The Great Debate, “the facts of human birth and death and the social institutions built around them link individuals, families, and communities inexorably, and to pretend otherwise (let alone to sever their links) would be disastrous for political life.” For liberals, by contrast, “The independence of individuals from their neighbors is a function of the independence of generations from their predecessors; this independence in the first generation is the essence of the theory of Enlightenment liberalism, which applies its timeless principles to all subsequent generations as well.”
Obviously, the dispute will not be resolved here, or perhaps ever. The immediate point is that the present-day Left’s refusal to acknowledge the unique status of the family is a mistake and leaves it making arguments that not only fail to persuade anyone, but also run counter to the beliefs and values of many whom they claim to be speaking for.
One more conceptual commitment of note: The Left took particular issue with my observation that: “Money itself does little to address many of poverty’s root causes, like addiction and abuse; unmanaged chronic- and mental-health conditions; family instability; poor financial planning; inability to find, hold or succeed in a job; and so forth. Effective anti-poverty policy provides resources in ways that also help resolve such problems and push the recipient toward resolving them himself.”
Annie Lowrey, author of Give People Money, says: “This is getting it exactly backwards. Poverty causes these things, or makes them worse. Money gives you the resources and stability to tackle what life throws at you.” But as her book makes clear, this is not necessarily true. In my review of the book, I note:
She introduces readers to Carolyn Silvius, homeless because living with her kids was “too burdensome for them and [they] thought she might get better social support if she were in a shelter;” and to Sandy Bishop, who suffered from arthritis, fibromyalgia, asthma, diabetes, and attention-deficit disorder but never received disability benefits, repeatedly lost her food stamps, and wound up homeless as well, despite sending a daughter to college and receiving two modest inheritances along the way. Perhaps poverty is not just a matter of consumption.
What I’ve found most striking about the self-righteous anger directed at this observation is the depth of the misunderstanding surrounding it. For instance, “financial planning” is indeed a vital and often lacking skill for households mired in poverty. But the concept was downright funny to people such as New America’s Kevin Carey, who thinks the term refers to “get[ting] the 401k auto-debit right,” and day-care advocate Elliot Haspel, who calls it “the Avocado Toast theory of poverty.”
An especially stunning example is public-health writer Zach Siegel, who argued that “we know contingency management, which gives people [money], actually does treat addiction.” He links to this New Republic article on an interesting program that treats substance abuse by giving participants financial rewards for passing drug tests. In other words, the entire premise of the program is that people should not be given money unconditionally but rather its conditionality can help people to address their underlying problems. This isn’t a subtle or confusing element of the story — the article is headlined, “What If We Pay People to Stop Using Drugs?”
More generally, the Left’s position here that an affliction such as serious mental illness (responsible for an enormous share of homelessness) is somehow caused by financial conditions or can be treated with cash is so bizarre that it suggests these aren’t really arguments at all; they’re just frustrated shouts.
Which perhaps helps to explain why so much of the debate seems predicated on willfully misrepresenting actual arguments. Matt Bruenig, two weeks after I explained to him that I would preserve and even strengthen the existing safety net, nonetheless reprinted in Jacobin the lie that I wanted to starve kids. Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, wrote that I think “the ‘non-working poor’ do not deserve a safety net.” The Niskanen Center’s Matt Yglesias says, “The real position appears to actually be that poverty per se isn’t bad.”
Jonathan Chait, writing at New York magazine, says I believe not only that “the threat of starvation and homelessness is necessary to force low-income parents into the workforce,” but also that “all parents, including single parents, should be encouraged to maximize their work hours.” That’s not even sensible policy analysis, which would more reasonably note that the Fisc proposal would allow single parents to work less. The proposal says this explicitly:
The proposed structure does have the potential to reduce work effort for families that might choose to spend fewer hours in the labor force — whether the middle-income household that decides it can now make do without a second earner, or the single mother who finds it possible to go part-time and spend more afternoons with her kids. We see this as a benefit — the importance of work is in the role it assigns people as productive contributors, the habits and social interaction it promotes, and the opportunity for upward mobility it provides. This does not mean that more work is always better or that the two full-time earners or the single mother working double shifts are the desirable outcomes for public policy to promote.
While the “starvation” rhetoric must largely be for effect, people do seem genuinely unfamiliar with the contours of the American safety net, on which we spend more than $1 trillion each year. Wilkinson says this “‘existing safety net’ barely exists at all,” echoing the Gravel Institute’s claim that “there is no “existing safety net.’” Of course, this safety net has many problems that both Left and Right correctly highlight, in both design and administration. We should seek constructive dialogue on how to improve it. That will be difficult, though, with one side pretending that the safety net doesn’t really exist and (somewhat paradoxically) that the other side wants to take it away.
There’s some irony in elements of the Left leading the libertarian charge against government involvement in the lives of the poor, preferring to write a check and walk away, while elements of the Right focus on the affirmative role government can play through programs not for people whose challenges go beyond their bank balance. But it’s to be expected, as progressivism seals itself into a very educated, Very Online bubble, and a more multi-ethnic, working-class conservatism reconsiders the role of public policy in advancing the common good.