A Counterintuitively Conservative Way to Stop Americans from Hating the Poor

Poor are People. Photo by Karen.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute and John Powell of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society published a fascinating piece in City Lab last week, which they refer to as “a bipartisan plea to stop ‘othering’ those living on the economic margins.” Bluntly, they state that “America can’t fix poverty until it stops hating poor people.”

After substantiating the claim that Americans “exhibit a disturbing level of antipathy” toward the poor, Brooks and Powell explain that the reason is to be found in the psychological phenomenon known as the “Ben Franklin effect,” so named because it was famously observed by the founding father. Essentially, the principle is that a person who behaves beneficently toward another person will begin to see that person in a more positive light. Put differently, the causality of our appraisals of people runs from our actions toward those people more than from them to those actions.

(C. S. Lewis observed the same thing:

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.)

This, the authors suggest, has profound implications for the perception Americans have of the poor. Because they are increasingly separated from poor people and rarely interact with them, average Americans have begun to see them (unintentionally) as the “other.” In Brooks and Powell’s words,

This antipathy is not the result of comfortable Americans having to endure constant exposure to the poor. On the contrary, a sharp uptick in socioeconomic stratification and segregation has been widely documented across the right and left, from Charles Murray to Robert Putnam. For growing percentages of middle- and upper-class Americans, interactions with poor and working-class people are very rare. Well-to-do Americans have almost no meaningful cultural contact with anyone from economically marginalized communities — from struggling inner cities to decaying suburbs to depressed rural counties.

They go on to argue that social programs are created with the intention of “helping” these “others,” instead of “a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people.” This results in today’s situation, where

…traditional welfare programs…sometimes exacerbate othering insofar as they treat temporarily poor people as permanent cases of “dependency” who are net liabilities to the American economy and do not really belong in productive society. These programs are secondary lines of defense against poverty at best. And if we continue to see these brothers and sisters of ours as people who do not really belong in our country, we are not likely to support policies that actually lift them up into economic self-sufficiency.

By contrast, they argue that “our primary policy focus [must be] restoring them to a position in which they are needed — in which they are necessary, integral participants in in our economy, our communities, and our collective imagination.” If the authors are correct, the question becomes how the critical mass of Americans can be persuaded to act toward — and thus think about — the poor in less “othering” ways. I suggest that the cycle must be broken from both sides of the circle.

Plainly put, institutions matter, and they are shaped both from the bottom up and from the top down. In a free society, bottom up solutions, through local communities and other institutions close to the action, likely make the most substantial difference. The problem is that most people who are in a position to contribute via these institutions are the ones now separated from the poor and likely to see them as the “other,” whom government is helping in ways that they will grudgingly concede are probably necessary, but which preclude the need for them personally to get involved. That cycle must be broken, and research suggests that bottom-up action often takes its cues from top-down decisions. This top-down part is institutional reform through reform of welfare and related programs. The simplest institutional paradigm shift would be in a move from a means-tested welfare system to a universal system.

Most of my fellow conservatives will balk at this suggestion, but they should hear me out. Certainly a primary objection will be that it does not seem fiscally conservative to make a welfare program universal. Shouldn’t government only spend money on those who need it? Of course, conservatives will admit that government policies already spend money in the way to which they are objecting, through such means as tax loopholes and corporate welfare. These differ from a universal program in that they apply differently to different economic groups.

Paradoxically, a truly universal program that is spent on everyone — in contrast to the current hodgepodge of giveaways — has been found to foster a sentiments of shared identity, even to build social capital. Rather than plant feelings of condescension or contempt in the better-off toward those who appear to live off the labor of others, or feelings of embarrassment or resentment in the poor toward those on whom they are (even temporarily) relying — such as a means-tested system tends to do, by splitting society into producers and takers — a universal system connotes by its very universal nature that its programs are intended to stabilize society for all its members. Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein argues, for example, “that selective needs-based public programs stimulate suspicions of cheating and arbitrary treatment more readily than do universal programs…”

Rothstein’s is perhaps the best research on the subject, summarized in his book, Social Traps and the Problem of Trust. In it, he focuses on the conundrum of building trust in a society, trust being the key ingredient in social capital. It’s a complicated, catch-22 sort of issue, he concludes, but the solution revolves around the institutional culture created top down. Conservatives recognize this — though they may not realize they recognize it — when they object to government action that disincentivizes on-the-ground, personal solutions to social problems, but government action, like all institutional action, affect how we see those who are acted upon. That is the point of moving from a means-tested to a universal-type system.

Furthermore, a universal program does not need to be fiscally irresponsible, nor does it need be inimical to personal freedom. For example, Charles Murray, who again provided us with the story of separation between the upper and upper-middle classes from the lower and lower-middle classes (and the subsequent breakdown of social capital) in Coming Apart, previously argued for a universal basic income as a replacement for most existing welfare programs in his book In Our Hands. Within such a system, the math can be worked out (assuming the incentive structure is feasible); the objective is a paradigm shift on welfare.

Senator Mike Lee, Yuval Levin, and of course Murray, are among a number of conservatives who are beginning to speak about the importance of social capital in solving social problems and doing so with a small government that complements other healthy institutions. Among the policy reforms they should consider is a move from means-tested to universal programs, especially as they relate to welfare. It is better for the worst-off and for social capital in general, and it doesn’t have to be fiscally irresponsible.