A Government That Works

Question: Can you explain some of your most recent work on social safety nets?

Richard Gelles: Well, the new book is titled “The Third Lie,” and it's based on an old and not very good joke: that there are three lies, and the first one is -- this is the older part of the joke, of course—I'll respect you in the morning; and the second lie is, the check is in the mail; and the third lie is, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you. And it spends about two-thirds of the book developing the case that government social programs -- not public works programs, not highways or national parks, but social programs like welfare and child abuse and special education, domestic violence, food stamps, housing -- are essentially as bad as people think they are; that they're terribly ineffective; that the government does a generally a poor job of delivering the help it is expected to deliver and the authors of the programs want it to deliver. And there are a variety of reasons for that. From a college professor's point of view, one of the reasons is there's a disconnect between research and government social policy. So there's one chapter called "The Drunk and the Lamppost," which says policymakers use research the same way a drunk uses a lamppost, much more for support than for illumination.

But underneath that, the real issue is that as a society we're really ambivalent about [if] we really want to help, and who we want to help. So we set up programs that are safety net programs, that almost always have a means test. Welfare, the means test is, well, just how poor are you? Housing, the means test is, well, just how much housing do you need. Special education, what's your disability and do you in fact require special assistance? For domestic violence, unfortunately the means test is, are you the victim of a form of violence of criminal? For child abuse, the means test is, are their caregivers inadequate in terms of neglect or medical neglect or physical abuse or sexual abuse? But almost every government program has this means test, which means there's an enormous bureaucracy hired to decide when the gate gets opened and when the gate gets closed. And that diverts monetary resources and energy that would otherwise be spent on the program itself.

The second ambivalence is in fact that bright line: who gets the services? And in a market economy, we're really reluctant to help everyone because we think, well, you don't want to exactly reward behavior that we think is inappropriate. So why would you have a welfare benefit increase with the second out-of-wedlock child, when in fact we don't want children born out of wedlock to folks who aren't able to support them. So we spent a great -- and domestic violence is a perfect example. What is domestic violence? Is it physical abuse? Is it emotional abuse? Is it sexual abuse? Is it yelling? Is it males exerting power and privilege? You know, in the beginning of the crusade to look at sexual assault, I think Andrea Dworkin once said that ninety-five percent of all men are rapists. Well, that's a bit excessive, and in essence what she's saying is, we don't need a safety net; we need a complete cultural change, which in fact was her point. But that's not going to get you very far in an environment where the social policy is means-tested.

So, you know, I spend about two-thirds of the book on that, and then stop and say, has there ever been a government program that's worked? Can you put a lie to the lie? And it's not going -- I'm not going to give away the whole book -- and we don't have time to give away the whole book -- but essentially, the government programs that work are the ones that don't have means tests or have really simple ones. You know, when I turn sixty-five I can ride on the bus in Philadelphia for free. What's the means test? I turn sixty-five. I'm eligible for Medicare. And nobody comes and says how much money do I make. Why? Because we decided in 1965 we are entitled to good health care. Nobody else is, but the elderly are. Can you in fact build social policies based on that principle? And that's going to -- you have to buy the book to get the last part.

Recorded on: October 29, 2009

In a free-market society, distinguishing between rights and privileges has become a murky and often quarrelsome decision. Here the Dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy, pinpoints our key misconception of the role of social programs.

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