Welfare myths and reality

Very nice column from Eduardo Porter about what people don’t get about welfare:

Does welfare corrupt the poor?

Few ideas are so deeply ingrained in the American popular imagination as the belief that government aid for poor people will just encourage bad behavior.

The proposition is particularly cherished on the conservative end of the spectrum, articulated with verve by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, who blamed welfare for everything from higher youth unemployment to increases in “illegitimacy.” His views are shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by Republican politicians like the unsuccessful presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee…

And yet, to a significant degree, it is wrong. Actual experience, from the richest country in the world to some of the poorest places on the planet, suggests that cash assistance can be of enormous help for the poor. And freeing them from what President Ronald Reagan memorably termed the “spider’s web of dependency” — also known as forcing the poor to swim or sink — is not the cure-all for social ills its supporters claim.

One billion people in developing countries participate in a social safety net. At least one type of unconditional cash assistance is used in 119 countries. In 52 other countries, cash transfers are conditioned on relatively benign requirements like parents’ enrolling their children in school.

Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

A World Bank report from 2014 examined cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.

Still, Professor Banerjee observed, in many countries, “we encounter the idea that handouts will make people lazy.”

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology,” he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts.” [emphasis mine]

The old welfare strategy Mr. Murray blamed for so many social ills died long ago. Its replacement is tiny by comparison, providing cash to only about a quarter of poor families and typically only enough to take them a quarter of the way out of poverty.

Still, it remains under siege. And the arguments against it are pretty much the same that President Reagan made 30 years ago.

And, of course, Paul “welfare is just a hammock for the poor” Ryan is making them now.  Of course welfare is not perfect.  Of course some people take advantage of it.  But on the whole, is is quite successful for improving human well-being.  That seems like something we as a society should want.

Guns and fear

It’s pretty clear that a lot of people feel so strongly about guns because they feel that it essential to protect them.  I guess it’s okay to afraid of really low probability events (unless you are a drug dealer you are probably not facing the threat from people interested in harming you on a regular basis), but one should not let that fear run your life or your politics (as it seems to in the case of guns).  This fear is really clear in this question asked at Quora, “For people who advocate a ban on private gun ownership, what is their plan in the event someone breaks into their home?”  I love this answer from Evan DeFillippis:

My plan during a home invasion looks a bit like my plan to prevent getting struck by lightning. Extremely low probability events don’t occupy my mental space.

Boom.  And how low a probability?

Consider the following stats on the probability of home invasion:

In 2006, approximately 447,000 robberies were reported to the FBI. Of these, 14.3% occurred in the home and 42.2% involved a firearm, for about 27,000 home robberies involving a firearm annually. I’m assuming, in the absence of better data, that firearm involvement is evenly distributed between home and non-home robberies, although a higher level of injury encountered in workplace robberies suggests that this may be overstating the involvement of firearms in home robberies.

This translates to an annual, per capita, U.S. rate of firearm-related, home robberies of about 0.0001. Given a risk of injury in all robberies of about 35% (pdf) (with the same caveats about workplace robberies given above), that gives us approximately 9,000 firearm-related home-robbery injuries annually, or an annual per capita risk of 0.00003. Given that the FBI reports only 1,000 deaths during any robberies in all of 2006, the total annual per capita risk of death during robbery during home invasion, using the same assumptions, would be 0.0000002. In other words, tiny.

In other words, your risk of dying from a home invasion in the United States is  essentially a round-off error.

Data from National Crime Victimization Surveys as studied by researchers Phillip Cook and Kristin Gross in “The Gun Debate,” find the following:

As you can see, there is essentially no difference among these injury rates, and surely no obvious advantage to using a gun.  If anything, you are better off protecting your family with using a bat or any non-firearm weapon.

Somehow the rest of the developed world manages to not have massive die-offs from home invasion while dramatically curtailing the ownership of guns.  I’ll worry about lightning and stay indoors during thunderstorms.

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph’s animal photos of the week.  So, this is cool.

A dramatic fight between an octopus and a gull almost twice its size was caught on camera as the bird tried to pick up the mollusc by its tentacles. The gull was hunting when it spotted the 'rather large' murky-green octopus in the incoming tide. The octopus used its eight tentacles to wrap around the seagull's beak as it tried to peck and pick up the sea creature. Dr Andrew Lee spotted the unfolding drama while taking a lunchtime walk around Bolsa Chica Wetlands Reserve in Huntington Beach, Southern California

A hungry gull took on the challenge of catching and killing an octopus in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands Reserve in Huntington Beach, Southern California. The octopus defended itself by wrapping his long tentacles around the seagull’s beak. After an intense fight, the gull finally succeeded in subduing the octopus and after a few more prods with its beak was able to lift its meal out of the water.Picture: Dr. Andrew J. Lee/Solent News


Paul Ryan’s impossible job

Within American politics, I’ve never been much of a scholar of Congress.  For one, I find Congress just to frustrating.  That said, one of those books from grad school that has always stuck with me a lot in how I think– and teach– about Congress is Aldrich and Rohde’s explanation of “Conditional Party Government.”  Thus, I especially appreciated the Hans Noel post looking at the current Speaker controversy through this lens:

That dynamic led political scientists John Aldrich and David Rohde to describe a theoryof conditional party government. Parties, like any collective group, struggle to commit to collective decisions. When leaders are given more power, they can use that power to help the collective group. Aldrich and Rohde argue that parties will grant their leadership power, but only when the party is relatively more homogeneous. If the party is divided, it won’t be able to agree on a direction, so it won’t want a strong leader to be able to force it in one.

That explains the Democrats’ ideological moment. But aren’t the Republicans even more homogeneous now? Moderates have been evicted from the party, right? Shouldn’t the homogeneous conservatives be happy to cede some power to the speaker?

Obviously not. It’s definitely true that the party is more ideologically homogenous now than it once was. Conservative activists, who once found a home in both parties, are now solely interested in influencing the Republicans. But even if conservatism is the core of the Republican coalition, the party is still a coalition. Some observers have started to say that the Republican Party has been taken over byideologicalpurists, but the speaker dilemma proves that’s not exactly true. Part of the party is ideological purists, but a big part of the party is not. The difference between the House Freedom Caucus and the rest of the party is not as huge on policy as it is on strategy.

In other words, most of the party is conservative, but it is not remotely homogeneous when it comes to strategy. So the logic of coalition politics still applies.

This is a big lesson for political science. We typically measure homogeneity ideologically. If the policies that John Boehner and Paul Ryan (and their constituencies) want are pretty similar to the policies the House Freedom Caucus wants — and while there are important differences, they mostly are — then we think the party is homogeneous. But disagreements about strategy may be even more important. So the “conditional” part of party government isn’t satisfied.

But who wants to be the leader when the followers can’t commit to a direction? This is why the party had such a hard time finding someone to replace Boehner. And it’s why Ryan is asking for what he is asking for. He wants to be sure all the main factions of the party support him. He wants to make sure he will have leverage over the factions that might want to defect from the coalition. In short, he wants party government, even if the conditions for it aren’t there.

Also still very much like Greg Sargent’s take from before Ryan even agreed to this job with conditions:

But at risk of belaboring the obvious, here’s the question: Why would Ryan’s predicament be any different from that of John Boehner? Wouldn’t that predicament be defined by the same fundamental problem that has reigned for years now?

That problem is this: There is a large bloc of House Republicans — call them Tea Partyers, call them ultra-conservatives, call them radicals, call them the “House Freedom Caucus” or the “Freedom Fraud Caucus” or whatever — that is probably not willing to support anything that President Obama could sign.

I’m hardly the first to make that point, but it still seems to get lost all too easily. Instead, we keep hearing that this elusive quality known as “unity” continues to evade Republicans in the House, and that the right Speaker might be able to conjure up the conditions to make it happen, in vague and unspecified ways…

Take two of the main battles that loom this fall. Would House conservatives vote to raise the debt limit without unilateral concessions from Democrats? Would they vote to fund the government if funding is at a higher level than under the current sequester caps?

If the answers to those questions are No and No, then we’re back in the same place we always were. Senate Democrats will not support, and Obama will not sign, anything that grants major concessions in exchange for a debt limit hike or anything that funds the government at sequester levels. Before you argue that this proves Democrats are just as intransigent as House conservatives, recall that GOP leaders and many non-Tea Party Republicans in the Houseagree with Democrats on these matters — they have previously supported raising the debt limit without concessions, and they have already funded the government, temporarily, at higher than sequester levels.

Paul Ryan may seem like a savior at the moment, but unless the House Freedom Caucus actually caves and decides that they are not so committed to the very tactics that have come to define them, we really haven’t made any progress in a functional Republican party governing the House.

Your blood or your liberty

Seriously.  From Alabama via NYT:

MARION, Ala. — Judge Marvin Wiggins’s courtroom was packed on a September morning. The docket listed hundreds of offenders who owed fines or fees for a wide variety of crimes — hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks among them.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” began Judge Wiggins, a circuit judge here in rural Alabama since 1999. “For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside,” he continued, according to a recording of the hearing. “If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood.”

For those who had no money or did not want to give blood, the judge concluded: “The sheriff has enough handcuffs.”

Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue by imposing fines for minor offenses, particularly from poor and working-class people, have attracted widespread attention and condemnation in recent months. But legal and health experts said they could not think of another modern example of a court all but ordering offenders to give blood in lieu of payment, or face jail time. They all agreed that it was improper.

“What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways,” said Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, part of New York University. “You’re basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn’t benefit them and isn’t protecting the public health.”

Reached by phone, Judge Wiggins said: “I cannot speak with you.”

I actually find this pretty fascinating.  I hate the way we have used petty crimes to recreate modern day debtors prisons.  Hate it.  That said, I really like the idea of giving offenders the opportunity to do something for the public good in lieu of fines and jail time.  Clearly, “you blood or a jail cell” is not the best or most reasonable approach, but surely we can find other ways (is it that hard to get community service?) for minor offenders to benefit the larger community instead of paying money they don’t have or ending up in jail.

The straight dope

Okay, not quite a straight line increase in support for marijuana, but after a hard-to-explain downward blip, support for legalization continues to grow.  The latest from Gallup:

Trend: Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?

And if there were any question as to continued change, look at support by age:

Trend: Support for Legalizing the Use of Marijuana, by Age Group, 1969-2015, Selected Polls

By all accounts, we should be expecting legal marijuana in Canada soon. When that proves not to turn the nation into a bunch of stoned-out druggies, that should only increase pressure to have more sane policies here in the U.S.  Good news, stoners, it’s only a matter of time.  And, maybe good news all Americans if marijuana use is shown to largely replace alcohol use.


I almost posted the other day “enough with the Biden speculation– he’s not going to run.”  Alas, you’ll have to believe me I almost posted that.  Why did I think that?  Because Biden is a smart politician and he already knows he’s lost.  That said, I thought maybe Biden coveted the attention enough at this stage in his life/career to run anyway– why else let all the speculation go on.  Presumably, he’s been made happy with all the attention from the speculation.  Because he never had a chance at this late stage in the game.  Nate Cohn’s headline nails it, “Joe Biden Ran in the Invisible Primary, and Lost to Hillary Clinton.”

For all her struggles with poll numbers and the email investigation this year, Hillary Rodham Clinton has done one thing really well: dissuade mainstream opponents by dominating the invisible primary, the behind-the-scenes competition for elite support that often decides the nomination…

Mr. Biden’s decision was informed by personal considerations, as he said Wednesday in bowing out, not just the cold calculus of building a national campaign. But the reality was that he would have struggled for the same reason that other traditional, establishment-friendly candidates decided not to run. The support from party operatives, donors and officials wasn’t quite there. The party had already decided, for Mrs. Clinton. [emphasis mine]

Take note, Bernie lovers.

Photo of the day

An actual space photo from the Mashable gallery I linked a few days ago:


A phenomenal natural light show of a lightning storm emanating from the underside of ominous storm clouds juxtaposed with the gleaming stars of the Milky Way above them. The photographer had watched the storm front over Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park in South Australia for around two hours before capturing this tumultuous scene, using a graduated filter upside down to balance to exposure from top to bottom to showcase the beauty of our Galaxy.


Makers vs. Takers

My, this is good:

Graph depicting The Myth of the Nation of Takers

To mammogram or not

You may have heard about the new mammogram screening guidelines– from the American Cancer Society– that came out today (every year from 45-55; every two years thereafter).  This led to the best thing I’ve yet read on mamograms– a 538 post from Christie Aschwanden that puts this all in perspective.  Short version: it’s not about science, it’s about what sorts of trade-offs make sense in terms of false positives versus fatal cancers prevented.  Anyway, here’s the key chart:


I found this especially timely as my wife who is 43 recently had her first mammogram.  (I told her to follow the USPSTF guidelines and wait till 50, but hey, it’s her body).  She was called back for a second mammogram, which, of course, led to plenty of anxiety on her part.  Mammograms are more difficult and harder to get right on younger (under 50), denser breasts, so this was not at all surprising, but still a definite psychological cost.  As it turned out she’s actually got some old blocked milk ducts (how about that– it’s been around 4 years since they’ve been used), that looked funny, but she’s fine.  Of course, even if she had needed a biopsy, as you can see above, chances are strong it would have been unnecessary.

Anyway, here’s the key summary:

When weighing the benefits and risks, it’s helpful to look at absolute numbers. In a clinical review published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Tuesday, Karla Kerlikowske, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, presented some figures: A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from breast cancer is 2.7 percent without screening. Kerlikowske calculates that a woman who follows the new USPSTF guidelines could drop that risk to 2.0 percent, and one who follows the ACS guidelines may reduce the risk a few decimal places more, to between 1.8 and 1.9 percent. To get these benefits, the USPSTF program requires 13 total mammograms in a woman’s lifetime, and the ACS regimen will result in 20 breast X-rays.

In exchange for these risk reductions, 61 percent of women who have annual mammograms and 42 percent of women who have biennial mammograms will be called back at least once for follow-up tests that reveal they do not have cancer, researchers write in an accompanying paper. The anxiety and stress of such a false alarm is the most common harm, but it’s not the only one.

In its own analysis, the USPSTF calculated that if 1,000 women follow its advice and have a mammogram every other year from age 50 to 74, 146 of them will be subjected to unnecessary breast biopsies and 18 of the 1,000 will be diagnosed and treated for a cancer that would have never harmed them (a problem called overdiagnosis and overtreatment). Women who have mammograms more often, as they would under the ACS guidelines, will experience more of these downsides.

And, about those trade-offs:

Underneath the debate about at which age and at what frequency we should urge women to get mammograms, another important question looms: Is it reasonable to recommend a test that will produce false positives for something like half of the people who take it? Is it OK to risk harming hundreds of women in hopes of helping a handful avert a breast cancer death? The ACS and USPSTF have concluded yes, but that’s a value judgment, not a scientific one.

Amid all this conflicting advice, patients have to make their own decisions. After more than 15 years reporting on this issue, I’ve decided to skip mammograms altogether. My No. 1 priority is to remain a healthy person and avoid unnecessary treatments, and opting out of mammographyreduces my risk of becoming a breast cancer patient by one-third. A smart friend of mine has examined the same evidence and come to the opposite conclusion, choosing to follow the ACS guidelines…

What we’re both seeking is assurance and certainty, and those are things that neither choice can guarantee.

Honestly, what I think is most useful is people actually understanding the choices that they are making.  And I think right now, far too few women actually do.

What’s up with Rubio?

So, I still think Rubio may have the best chance of any Republican out there, but his latest fundraising sure was not impressive.  Then again, it may be a big thing that he’s now ahead of Jeb in the polls.  Politico had a pretty good story on Rubio’s situation:

The hype surrounding Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign just smashed into the wall of reality.

First, the Florida senator’s team insisted it had stashed more campaign cash in the bank than fellow Floridian Jeb Bush — only it hadn’t. The campaign also told reporters it had raised $6 million in the last fundraising quarter — also not true. That turned out to be an overly generous rounding of the underwhelming real figure: $5.7 million.

Yet those aren’t even the most troublesome parts of the Florida senator’s most recent campaign finance report. Rubio may be slowly rising in the polls, but his third quarter filing revealed a campaign that’s also out-manned by many of its rivals in the early-voting states. His staff is largely concentrated in Washington, with just a small umbrella of on-the-ground, early-state operatives — and he’s already at a disadvantage because he hasn’t invested the time in early-state visits that some of his opponents have.

For all the recent buzz surrounding his candidacy — fueled by strong debate performances — Rubio isn’t raising enough money to keep pace with his rivals in the top tier and he’s running out of time to assemble a robust field organization.

So, what’s going on here?  Of course SuperPac money can help, but despite all the thinking by people like me that Rubio’s campaign has got to catch fire at some time, we’re still waiting and his organizational deficits certainly do matter and don’t inspire confidence.

I still think Rubio is probably the man to beat.  But less than I did a few weeks ago.  Ezra is also feeling somewhat torn on the case for Rubio:

I keep telling people that I don’t believe Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination, but I also can’t tell a very convincing story at this point of what he does to lose it. But let’s say I’m right that he won’t win the nomination. What is there in this chart to suggest his support would flow to Rubio or Bush rather than to Carson, Cruz, or Fiorina?

Rubio is Trump’s stylistic opposite: young where Trump is old, Hispanic where Trump is white, courtly where Trump is brash, hopeful where Trump is angry, intellectual where Trump is instinctual, an insider where Trump is an outsider.

But Rubio is also Trump’s substantive opposite. Rubio is known for his work on immigration reform, his fiscal and social conservatism, and his closeness to the neocon wing of the Republican Party. Trump is known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his heterodoxies from fiscal and social conservatism, and when he gets specific on foreign policy, his instincts appear dovish.

The best argument that Trump’s support would run to Rubio is that Republicans will somehow get the message that Rubio is their best chance to win the White House, and they’ll vote accordingly. But if Republicans gave a damn about that message — or about the messengers who might deliver it — they wouldn’t be supporting Trump in the first place… [emphasis mine]

But Rubio’s support is roughly a third of Trump’s vote share — and it looks to have come largely at Jeb Bush’s expense. Imagine Rubio sees another surge, though. Rubio could take all of Bush’s voters and then add all of Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore’s voters, and he would still be trailing Trump.

According to the Huffington Post’s polling averages, Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Fiorina now command 61.3 percent of the Republican vote. To make the math work for Rubio, you somehow need an explanation for why he’s going to rip votes from the outsiders — the candidates who are everything he isn’t, and whom Republican voters seem to be favoring precisely because they don’t want an insider like Rubio.

The Democrat in me hopes that Republican primary voters are foolish enough to take their party off a general election cliff.  The political scientist in me still thinks it is unlikely, but a lot less unlikely than I was thinking not all that long ago.  One thing that has become pretty clear is that many Republican primary voters really do live in an alternate reality.  In this one, Rubio should be kicking butt in the polls.

Photo of the day

From an In Focus photos of the week gallery:

A swan is carried down the nave of the cathedral during the Procession of the Animals at the 31st annual Feast of Saint Francis and Blessing of the Animals at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan on October 4, 2015.

Elizabeth Shafiroff / Reuters
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