The Magazine

Poverty of Ideas

Is there anything new to be said about the poor?

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But Karelis also supports no-strings assistance to the poor: that is, assistance that is not conditional on any efforts by the poor to help themselves. After all, if the poor are given funds to buy four dabs of salve, they're more likely to work to be able to purchase three additional dabs themselves. To make this case, though, Karelis must refute the familiar contention that no-strings assistance discourages work: Why work, if you'll be paid even if you don't work?

Karelis does not deal adequately with that obvious objection. He limits himself to a paragraph in an endnote, in which he alludes to "the famous income maintenance or negative income tax experiments conducted by the federal government between 1968 and 1982" which "have often been taken to show that [income] transfers reduce work effort." That conventional view may be wrong, Karelis asserts, because the beneficiaries of the negative income tax may have underreported their earnings.

Is there evidence to support this hypothesis? If so, he doesn't cite it.

In the final analysis, Karelis advances a novel argument on behalf of a very familiar position: Giving money to the poor will solve their problems. But in the past few decades most Americans (and more, though not yet most, American poverty experts) have increasingly come to believe that simply giving money to the poor encourages the behaviors--in particular, not working and not marrying--that make and keep them poor.

It is unlikely that Karelis's ingenious philosophical argument will cause many people to change their minds.

Joel Schwartz, adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000.