Have You Stopped Beating the Poor Yet?


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?