The Agenda

Conditional Reciprocity

Over the weekend, I had a brief exchange with Mickey Kaus about how the Hilary Rosen controversy seems to have evolved into a renewed discussion of the value of welfare reform. I am sympathetic to his interpretation of how this debate might play out, and I’ve written my Tuesday column for The Daily on this subject. 

While writing the column, I was reminded of Amy Wax’s excellent 2001 essay on conditional reciprocity. The abstract reads as follows:

This paper examines how social welfare programs should be structured to comport with the principle of conditional reciprocity. A previous paper, Rethinking Welfare Rights, 63 Law & Contemporary Problems 257 (Winter/Spring 2000), drew upon voter survey data to suggest that a powerful cluster of attitudes governs citizens’ views on social redistribution. Most people accept collective responsibility for the poor but adhere to a moralistic distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of public aid. They view entitlement to group resources as conditional on each person’s reasonable effort, consistent with ability, to support himself and his family. It was speculated that the widespread antipathy to “freeloaders” – that is, persons who depend unnecessarily on others – expresses attitudes that evolved over centuries to stabilize cooperative arrangements for mutual support that enhanced group survival. The popular expectation of a reasonable effort towards self-help defines the principle of conditional reciprocity. This principle continues to enjoy widespread assent in many societies.

This paper explores the concrete implications of adopting conditional reciprocity as a central organizing principle in social welfare policy design. Because people differ widely in their capacity for self support – and because some low-wage workers earn too little to achieve self-sufficiency – this principle entails a governmental commitment to make up for any shortfall between what persons can earn through exercising due diligence and resources sufficient to support a minimally decent standard of living. In effect the government undertakes to act as surety for a basic subsistence on condition that the “insured” make a reasonable effort to support himself, if he can, through market work or through a private exchange such as marriage.

The article argues that, although the policies in place in the United States today under the 1996 welfare reform statute and other legislation go some distance towards vindicating a reciprocity ideal, more could be done to bring the system in line with this principle. The government should continue and extend work subsidies for low-wage workers, in effect establishing a “living wage” policy that guarantees that heads of household who work full time can support a family of average size above the poverty line. It should supplement the early care and education of the children of the working poor and adjust work requirements to better accommodate the demands of parenthood. It should extend the five-year lifetime limit on welfare payments for the least socialized and skilled recipients while continuing to make public support conditional on performing extra-domestic work of some kind, including, as a last resort, publicly sponsored “workfare” type jobs. It should structure in-kind benefits for housing and food to favor workers over non-workers. It should expand funding for flexible and creative programs to encourage and support sustained work, such as transportation loans, work-expense emergency assistance, and “nest egg” asset accumulation for workers still receiving welfare. Finally, it should establish minimally adequate health benefits for all workers and their families.

Note that Wax concludes on the same note as Kaus: publicly-sponsored “workfare” jobs are a logical choice if we believe that encouraging norms of work and reciprocity are important. Yet these programs would be expensive and hard-to-administer, and they’d be in conflict with the interests of organized public workers. In When Work Disappears, William Julius Wilson controversially recommended that a new public jobs program offer wages below the minimum wage, thus automatically creating an incentive for participants to find private sector work. 

We thus find ourselves at a political impasse: while those on the left are more likely to want to fund an expensive anti-poverty program, they are somewhat unlikely (with some notable exceptions) to favor an expensive anti-poverty program that undermines the interests of a core Democratic constituency, perhaps on the principled ground that work for low wages is an indignity or that there is a legitimate case for unconditional assistance, at least for parents. And those on the right are keen on conditional programs, yet they are, as a general rule, reluctant to devote significant new resources to anti-poverty programs, particularly in a constrained budgetary environment. 


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