During his confirmation hearing Thursday, Ben Carson repeated the oft-cited conservative claim that government assistance — in this case, public housing — has created a culture of dependency in urban communities.
Carson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, spoke about his impoverished childhood in Detroit living in “dilapidated” housing “with rats and roaches.” But he said his mother, a domestic worker, taught him from an early age about the importance of self-reliance.
“What has happened too often is that people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage development of any innate talent in people,” Carson told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “Hence we have generation after generation living in dependent situations. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s that this is what they’ve been given, and it’s all they know in some cases.”
Carson’s views on government assistance have long been espoused by conservative critics of the welfare system who argue that benefits like food stamps and housing assistance only serve to enforce the cycle of poverty.
That perspective has even been the subject of a popular series of children’s books, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” first published three decades ago when welfare topped the national agenda. While the book doesn't mention welfare or social services, the story about charity and self-reliance warns about the consequences of handouts.
Many economists, though, reject such characterizations of the effects of government help. While welfare can discourage some recipients from working, research has shown that most households receiving government assistance are, in fact, lead by a working adult.
The problem is not lack of motivation; it’s low-paying jobs. In industries like fast-food, child care and home-care, about half of the workers rely on public assistance, according to the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.
But before liberals completely dismiss Carson and others who blame welfare for creating a culture of dependency, some economic research backs up those claims.
“The research shows that there are, for some poor families, those who would significantly reduce their work effort if given unrestricted large cash welfare payments,” said Robert Moffitt, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University.
It's important to note, however, that the U.S. no longer has those types of programs. Welfare today requires recipients to work, look for work, go to school or enroll in training.
“There is little hard research evidence that any current welfare program has significant work disincentives,” Moffitt said.
Research has not shown much effect on work levels for recipients of two of the major government assistance programs: food stamps and Medicaid, which only help with food and medical expenses.
The benefits offered today are too small for people to subsist solely upon federal assistance — contrary to the image of the “welfare queen.” Take food stamps: the average benefit in 2015 was $465 a month for a family of four. The maximum monthly benefit for a family that size is $649 — which equates to about $5.40 worth of food per day for each family member.
“It’s not like we give people an enormous amount,” said Janet Currie, an economics and public affairs professor at Princeton University, whose research shows the benefits of government assistance on a child’s life outcome. “If you look at how people who are poor who participate in some of these programs actually live their lives, most of them are incredibly resourceful because they have to be, just trying to make ends meet.”
Poor people’s primary problem is not a lack of resourcefulness, Currie said. Systemic barriers keep them poor, she added, like being disproportionately stopped by police, as well as housing and employment discrimination.
“It’s discouraging to pin this all on people’s lack of motivation,” Currie said. “Unfortunately the debate is not about evidence. It’s about people saying, ‘I don’t care if there’s evidence that government assistance has a positive effect. I don’t think the government should be doing it, period.’”
While politicians like to paint the picture of welfare recipients passing their government-dependent status onto future generations and preserving the cycle of poverty, most welfare recipients are not receiving benefits for years on end.
Before welfare reform in 1996, about 40 percent of recipients were on welfare for one or two years. Only about a third received welfare for five years or more.
Carson on Thursday did not completely discount the role of the federal government in lifting families out of poverty. But even as he referred to HUD’s assistance to low-income families as “good programs,” he again cautioned against overreliance on the government.
“We don’t want it to be a way of life,” he said. “We want it to be a Band-Aid and a springboard to move forward.”
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