In a recent interview for the Christian Broadcasting Network, Representative Paul Ryan argues that his budget proposal is entirely consistent with a primary tenet of Catholic social teaching—the preferential option for the poor. His argument rests on the Catholic notion of subsidiarity—that human problems should be addressed and solved at the lowest level of social organization possible—first the family, then the community, and then the state. In Ryan’s own words, "…the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence."
I will not offer any critique of Ryan’s use of the subsidiarity principle in defending his budget proposal and budget philosophy. Others much more qualified than I have already done so. What I would like to address is his view, one shared by many others, that government programs to assist the poor—welfare, food stamps, etc.—create an insidious dependency that, ironically, causes their poverty to persist. Of course, this view has its roots in the "culture of poverty" proponents of the late 1950s and 1960s. Prominent among these were Michael Harrington (The Other America, 1962), Oscar Lewis (La Vida, A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty: San Juan and New York, 1968), Walter Miller (Lower Class Society as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency, 1958), and Edward Banfield (The Unheavenly City, 1970). These scholars argued that low income was only one characteristic of the poor. Their other characteristics or deviances which included dependency, illegitimacy, and instability could not be eradicated by income support. Indeed, these deviances would be reinforced by such support. Here is what Martin Anderson wrote in his 1978 book Welfare: The Political Economy of Welfare Reform in the United States:
"In effect we have created a new caste of Americans—perhaps as much as one-tenth of this nation—a caste of people free of basic wants but almost totally dependent on the State, with little hope or prospects of breaking free."
Similarly, but with a greater flare for the dramatic, a 1982 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by George Gilder reads:
"In this heartbreaking harvest of liberal ‘compassion,’ all the necessary disciplines of upward mobility and small business activity have given way to the vandalism and chaos of gangs and drugs, illegitimacy, and prostitution. Thus poverty has been intensified and perpetuated by income redistribution."
The host of cuts in cash and in-kind transfers to the poor by the Reagan administration were justified on the basis of such pronouncements--that these programs reinforce low self-esteem and motivational deficits among the poor, feed the cycle of poverty, and transmits the legacy of poverty and dependency from parents to their children. Using anecdotal stories of welfare queens and three-generation welfare families, welfare was likened to a narcotic breeding long term dependency.
Here’s the crucial question: What does the preponderance of research on the incentive effects of welfare have to say about welfare dependency and the welfare trap? For the answer, I searched the scholarly literature over the last three decades.