Welfare and Equality of Opportunity

In a democracy, government should work to extend equality of opportunity, to ensure that each individual has the ability to take control of his or her own life. Our welfare system should be one of the tools government uses to extend freedom (and yes, most Republicans do believe in welfare for this purpose), yet many of us have this nagging feeling that the designers and often operators of our existing welfare system don’t really believe in capitalism, but instead hold out hope for a move to a more communal, less competitive economy. And because they don’t believe in capitalism they are hesitant to use economic criteria to measure welfare’s success.

The Aid for Families with Dependent Children and its replacement, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (AFDC/TANF), offer an example. We give this financial support to families to extend opportunity to the kids. AFDC/TANF should be an easy program to evaluate.  Believing in capitalism, the standard used to judge success should be economic success – how many of the children supported through AFDC/TANF became economically self-sufficient upon reaching adulthood?   Did they develop the skills they needed to get a job in today’s economy? I haven’t found this information anywhere  – as far as I can tell there is no ongoing government effort to quantify how many children grow up to be self-sufficient adults, or how many wind up reliant on welfare or in jail.

My sense, unfortunately, is that AFDC/TANF is failing, and that that children are not reaching adulthood with the skills they need. If this impression is true then we are failing these children and as importantly we are likely failing the broader community. “It Takes A Village To Raise A Child” is obviously true – the efforts of the parent must be supported and furthered by the community as a whole.  But the village has always had a way to take a child away from a parent that wasn’t doing a good job. Economics was a key to this process.  If the parents couldn’t afford to feed and shelter their children, then they were dependent upon the good will of the village.  If the parents weren’t doing a good job, then the village had the option of withholding financial support and forcing the parents to give up the children.  This wasn’t just for the well-being of the children – it was also for the well-being of the village.  If children were left with bad parents it was possible that these children would start to set the norms of behavior for all of the children in the village.

Arguably this is happening now in some poor neighborhoods.  The children of parents who don’t care or are overmatched set the standards of behavior for the neighborhood.  They harass the kids that try to do well in school, beat up children that won’t join gangs.  Raising a child is hard enough already – in poor neighborhoods, the efforts of the parents who care are often overwhelmed by the kids of parents who don’t care. Harsh to say, but the worst parents are essentially setting the standards of behavior for the whole neighborhood.  AFDC/TANF has inadvertently allowed bad parents to keep their children without the support of the community and in doing so undermined the efforts of the good parents.

If we actually tracked outcomes for AFDC/TANF, we would also be able to look for correlations that predict the outcomes.  How many of the people that supported themselves in adulthood finished their high school educations?  How many that failed left school before the 10th grade or had multiple arrests?  And if we can identify those predictors, we can actually start intervening in a meaningful way.  Financially helping the mother rear her children is clearly the first and best option, but at some point the child’s economic future might be better advanced by being placed in foster care or even an orphanage.  Arguably the community as a whole -the village- would be better off as well.

It’s easy to have a general conversation about the need to promote equality of opportunity and the government’s role in engineering society.  This is the engineering part of social engineering –quantifying outcomes and making adjustments to improve those outcomes.  At some point we need to use economic standards to evaluate our existing welfare programs.  At some point we need to quantify the government’s successes and failures in extending freedom.

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