Have You Stopped Beating the Poor Yet?

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An article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend considered a proposal to pay poor folks for "good behavior"—things like staying in school and on the right side of the law. I'll confess, I couldn't get one line from a certain (distinctively non-worksafe) Chris Rock routine out of my head: "What do you want, a cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail!" I'm normally all in favor of taking advantage of market incentives, but things like this can backfire too. I recall reading a study about a nursery school that started fining parents for picking up their kids late. This actually led to more late pickups, because arriving late stopped being seen as discourteous to the people running the school, and instead was seen as a luxury parents could buy.

What I actually wanted to call attention to, though, was a little graph that appeared in the print edition showing people's responses to one question from the Pew Center's "political typology" test. The question is which of these rather loaded statements you agree more with. Option one:

Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.

Option two:

Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently.

Apparently, and a bit surprisingly to me, a significant majority used to agree with the first one more, while now more agree with the second. And I suppose that's an interesting datum, but damn what a terrible question. "Are you in favor of more government social benefits, or do you think being poor is awesome?" Can we get a checkbox for those of us who think poor people have hard lives, and also that having the government cut bigger checks is a bad response to that fact?

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  1. Can we get a checkbox for those of us who think poor people have hard lives, and also that having the government cut bigger checks is a bad response to that fact?

    Not until they add a “typology group” that is anything at all like “libertarian”.

    As for this and other questions on that survey, reporters and editors should learn to tear to shreds polls that conflate several things into one question. Such polls are utterly unscientific and do not prove what they purport to prove.

  2. If libertarians represented more than 2% of the population, then maybe they’d have that group.

  3. The whole survey is geared to “Are you a liberal Dem or a conservative Repub?” The final questions ask if you are Dem, Dem-leaning independent, Repub-leaning independent, or Repub, then the same with liberal/conservative replacing Dem/Repub.
    Ironically, the survey is titled “Beyond Red vs Blue.”

    I’m an “Enterpriser” according to the poll. I guess that sounds like the closest thing to a libertarian on their list, but I don’t think this is accurate:

    …this extremely partisan Republican group?s politics are driven by a belief in the free enterprise system and social values that reflect a conservative agenda. Enterprisers are also the strongest backers of an assertive foreign policy, which includes nearly unanimous support for the war in Iraq and strong support for such anti-terrorism efforts as the Patriot Act.

  4. MikeP,

    Your point is well taken, but there’s not a lot of market incentive to do so, is there?

  5. I took the test and got “liberal,” which is probably pretty accurate given their questions, but honestly, their questions were pretty horrible. Too many cases where I had to choose the least offensive answer instead of the most accurate one, and too many cases where the question asked for a global response when a more specific or qualified one would have been better. Also, why should my dislike of my personal financial situation necessarily affect my opinions about, oh, homosexuality or the war in Iraq?

  6. The daycare thing, I believe, was discussed in freakonomics.

  7. I got “Enterpriser,” too. However, I’m pro-immigration, against what they call an “assertive foreign policy,” against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

    I guess anyone who favors the free market and opposes the welfare state is a flag-wavin’, Patriot-Act-Lovin’, unquestioning Bush supporter.

    Or maybe my next-door neighbor hacked my work computer and changed my responses when I hit “submit.”

  8. “Too many cases where I had to choose the least offensive answer instead of the most accurate one, and too many cases where the question asked for a global response when a more specific or qualified one would have been better.”

    Kind of our political system in a nutshell, Karen. 😉

  9. d,

    I got the same thing, enterpriser, and your description is exactly like me:

    “pro-immigration, against what they call an “assertive foreign policy,” against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation”

    Go figure…

  10. My favorite was:

    • The best way to ensure peace is through military strength
    • Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace

    Anyone ever hear of “Speak softly and carry a big stick?”

  11. Anyone ever hear of “Speak softly and carry a big stick?”

    Or, even better, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” from Jefferson’s first inaugural address.

    Note that this is in the middle of a paragraph which leads with

    it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations.

    and ends with

    They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

    There’s clearly no place in this lame typology for Thomas Jefferson…

  12. Well MikeP, maybe if Jeffersonian liberals represented more than 2% of the population, they’d have those sorts of answers.

  13. What’s with the 2% number? That’s the second time I’ve seen that. Where’s it from?

    Why then do Republicans argue that libertarians should vote Republican and Democrats argue that libertarians should vote Democrat? I wouldn’t think all that effort is spent trying to attract a mere 2% of the populace who is more apt to vote for neither than for the other.

    If there was a fiscally conservative and socially liberal option in the typology — and questions that successfully distinguished that option — I would expect it to pull 5-10%.

  14. I looked around some more and, according to (another arm of?) the Pew Research Center, the fraction of libertarians is 9%.

    When simple questions are asked to discern opinions on economic interventionism and social interventionism, it breaks as 9% libertarian, 15% conservative, 18% liberal, 16% populist, and 42% ambivalent.

    Why this breakdown doesn’t find its way into the “typology”, I don’t know. I guess it spoils the “everyone is in a group beholden to the Republicans or the Democrats” model.

  15. At first I thought they had me pegged. They said I was “disaffected.”

    Then I learned that I didn’t vote and didn’t follow the news. Of course I follow the news — how do you think I *became* disaffected?

  16. “If libertarians represented more than 2% of the population, then maybe they’d have that group.”

    This is a question where libertarians and conservatives probably more or less agree. This question seems like an attempt to shame conservatives/libertarians.

  17. I’m still trying to figure out what my ability to pay my bills on time has to do with my politics.

  18. I’m still trying to figure out what my ability to pay my bills on time has to do with my politics.

    Maybe the Pew Center assumes that if you don’t make much money you’re likely to whine that the government needs to take care of you.

    Nothing like a little stereotyping, is there?

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