Bad Incentives That Work Quite Well: The Opportunity Cost of Political Partisanship

Nick Kristof, writing in the N.Y. Times:

This is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.


This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. 


“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

I have always admired Kristof as a person and a writer and if you don’t know his work, this column is a good place to start (as well as his book Half the Sky, co-written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn).

Let me add just one tangential observation — about our hyper-partisan political environment. When people talk about this partisanship, one element that’s overlooked is the opportunity cost. Look at that sentence Kristof wrote:

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.

Kristof is a measured, humble, fact-based writer — the very opposite of the typical partisan flame-thrower — but it’s hard for me to imagine reading a sentence like that, written by practically anyone, before the recent Presidential election.

During a heated election period (which, in the case of the 2012 election, arguably went back all the way to 2008!), advocates on both sides of the aisle are so worried about giving their opponent any ammunition that it affects what they say, how they say it, and how loudly.

The result is more silo-speak — liberals and conservatives each shouting to their blind followers, and demonizing any dissent — and less worthwhile public thinking. I think back to how Bryan Caplan put it in a recent podcast:

People have often said that politics has been the religion of the 20th century, and I think there’s a lot to that. In the same way that people get attached to a religion, they get attached to a political party. And once you’re part of it, you don’t want to hear someone talking about the horrible things that your religion or your party did in the past. You don’t want to go and say the people who now run it might be morally questionable, or hypocritical, or just wrong. Instead, you want to find a sense of community with a bunch of like-minded people. You all tell each other how wonderful you are and try to defeat your Satanic enemies who for some strange reason continue to dispute the truth that you have obtained.

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  1. Nosybear says:

    Politics as religion – interesting. Religion, science and now politics are mental models we use to understand the world, one of the three is effective but this is a digression. Yes, this Liberal knows that there are those who manipulate the social safety net system. I have extended family members who do so. This is a result of some perverse incentives that give a family more income for having another baby, as an example. This is not the first historical example: Many of our beer styles today exist because of taxation schemes someone figured out a way around. Even architectural styles exist because of efforts to tax building owners based on the number of windows facing the street. No matter what we do, there will be those who manage to find a way around it, for example, some fairly wealthy friends who live in Colorado and own a house in Texas to avoid our state income tax. It’s inevitable. Key, Right, is to make the system work for those who really need it but then, what do we do with the others? I hardly think starvation on streetcorners is acceptable for the US.

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    • Joe J says:

      ” I hardly think starvation on streetcorners is acceptable for the US.”
      The problem with that statement is obesity, not stavation, is the more likely problem facing poor in the US. Recognising that fact, one must also recognise how far the scales have tipped away from a hand up towards dependency/lifestyle.

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      • mr gray says:

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      • Tag says:

        You can be obese and still malnourished.

        Although I suppose you’re technically right – while there are still plenty of “food insecure” households (14.3% in 2013), the standards for this category can be lenient (e.g. “In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)”), and very few of these people are technically starving.

        But I’m mostly just leaving this comment because I really worry about anyone (the commenter or any casual reader) genuinely believing that there’s not a significant problem with poverty and/or having the resources to regularly eat proper food. Hopefully Joe was just pointing out Nosybear’s hyperbole for fun.

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  2. Roger Dooley says:

    Well said! If politicians, and the legions of partisans who support them, could simply carry on adult, fact-based conversations, imagine what we could accomplish!

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  3. Jaime says:

    I would love to this kind of assessment be put into context as compared against the incentives rich people have to find and exploit tax-reduction loopholes. Mainly to see the comparative effects of both and get a measure of which of those problems should be tackled first. (Although admittedly, in order to be fair this would also need to include the cost of enforcing any measure to stop either of these “exploits”).

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    • Joe J says:

      In perspective, sure that’s easy. It’s human nature, everyone is a little greedy and a little lazy. That’s everyone, rich and poor. So when a politician says my group doesn’t do bad behavior but the other group always does it. Both parts are wrong. Both groups have a percentage of people try to do the ‘bad’ stuff at about the same rate. Why about the same rate? Because they are both human and we are talking human nature.

      As to the enforcement cost, that can actually be lessend a great deal, by simplifying both. We don’t need 187 different kinds of “welfare like programs” which just adds to the confusion and misdirection. WHen someone claims people on welfare only get $X they often deliberately ignore, they also get X in food stamps, X in housing allowance, X in medicaid, X in child care, etc. on Federal, state and local levels. Asking for reform is not wanting to starve people.

      And on the other side, noone can understand the jumbled mess of contradicitions exemptions and rules in a standard 1040. Can anyone honestly say their tax forms are guaranteed 100% accurate, even if they are trying to be honest. That just breeds accounting tweeks, that only those with full time accountants can even attempt to figure out. And this doesn’t even touch on the accounting gymnastics of companys, stocks, bonds, options, etc. Asking for tax “fairness’ assumes you can get any 2 people to agree on what fair means.

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    • J1 says:

      Which problem should be tackled first seems an easy decision. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any tax loopholes for the rich that make having more children out of wedlock or intentionally keeping your child illiterate a (perceived) rational economic decision.

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      • csdx says:

        Actually, given that it can be disadvantageous for two high income people to get married (the marriage tax penalty). I’d say that there actually are incentives for the rich to have children out of wedlock.

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  4. Martin says:

    We have a similar debate in the UK, and it can reach similar levels of hyperbole, especially when tabloids get involved (“benefit scum”, “scroungers”, etc.). This kind of thinking is needed but sadly rare in politics.

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  5. Bill says:

    Substitute sports team for political party and Bryan Caplan makes a lot more sense.

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  6. Eric M. Jones. says:

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    • James says:

      “The top 2% own 50% of everything, the bottom 50% own 2%. Why there is not yet rioting in the streets is a mystery to me.”

      Not surprising, as from the post it seems that a lot of things must be mysteries to you.

      To solve this mystery, you could start with the fact that (accepting your numbers for the sake of discussion) even their share of 2% of the wealth affords most of the 50% a pretty comfortable life. As has already been pointed out, many of the poor in this country aren’t stealing bread, they’re riding around their local WalMart on mobility scooters (purchased with SS money – I’m sure you’ve seen the ads) because they’re too obese to walk.

      Then you could consider that anyone with energy and ambition enough to participate in more than an occasional street riot, let alone organize them, can easily use that energy and ambition to become one of the upper 50%.

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      • Thalia says:

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      • James says:

        “You must be white and middle class if you truly believe that energy and ambition are sufficient to propel someone into the upper 50%.”

        Half right. Mixed white/Indian ancestry. Today I’m middle class, or probably upper middle class, but I was born & grew up in just the conditions Mr. Kristof describes. The way I know than energy and ambition (and in all honestly, not an extraordinary degree of either) can propel someone from the bottom quintile to the top is because I did it myself.

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      • JAM says:

        “You must be white and middle class if you truly believe…”

        It is too bad when the content of ideas cannot be debated without someone injecting racial ad hominems.

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  7. Enter your name... says:

    It’s not painful for me to admit. Of course taking something too far has bad consequences, that is true for any policy. For instance, how low can we feasibly cut taxes and still maintain our country? Aren’t taxes presently lowest than in many, many years? Even conservatives wouldn’t argue for zero taxes. Well. Not too many would. Making a government check too easy to get is just as silly.

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    • Joe J says:

      Actually for most of US history we had no income tax. Currently income tax makes up only about half of the revenue. Strangely enough during the time when we had zero income taxes we also generally had little or no debt. So can we run a country with no income tax, Yes. So yes there are people who would argue we should have no income taxes. We would actually have to make cuts in the size of the US government, probably about the size that Canada did a few years back. They have yet to have rioting in the streets.

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      • Joe D says:

        By all means, let’s return to protectionist import and export tariffs. So long, MFNs. Adiós, NAFTA. Move a quarter of the Navy into the Coast Guard, because smuggling will become more attractive.

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      • Ryan says:

        For most of US history we weren’t an empire intent on policing the world and shaping trade and policies in basically every country on the planet. Are the direct and indirect benefits of having this empire greater or less than the relatively low taxes we pay?

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  8. Caleb B says:

    I just wish there were a political party that represented my point of view…instead, I have to chose between a party that wants to give away the farm and one that wants to make abortion illegal. Why can’t I be both for gay marriage AND also not want to be taxed to death?

    Note to liberals: making 120k in a household does not mean you are rich when you have $200k in student loans (shut your mouth about the deduction, it caps at $2500/yr)

    Note to conservatives: abortion lowers the crime rate, shouldn’t you be for that?

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    • John says:

      Killing everyone that commits a single crime would likely lower the crime rate substantially, this doesn’t make it good policy. I’m not saying that this policy and abortion are equivalent, simply that correlation (heck, even causation) with a positive result doesn’t alone make a good policy.

      As a whole, I agree with your statement. I wish there was a party that was more fiscally conservative while being more socially liberal.

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    • Joe J says:

      Not knowing your other political beliefs. But you may want to take a look at the libertarian party.

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    • JAM says:

      I agree with Joe J’s response to Caleb B.

      In both cases, being “for gay marriage AND also not want to be taxed to death”, what you really want is decreased government intervention in your life.

      After all, what business is it of the government if you want to form a union with a man or a woman so long as you believe it increases your happiness and it doesn’t harm others?

      As far as taxation is concerned, the one-note-samba we heard from the left for the last several years is for the wealthy to pay their “fair share” while conveniently never bothering to define what that is. It seems that whenever there is another program a politician can promise supporters, it’s time to round up the clubs and pitchforks and just “ask the wealthy to pay their fair share.” Wouldn’t it be much simpler to define a simple tax code with no deductions for anyone, and then we would all have a better sense of what a “fair share” was and could rationally discuss it?

      Both of the major parties consistently use the force of government to enact their preferences on everyone. And what is worse is that in doing so, they wind up massively distorting market price signals such that when we do make choices, they are hardly free ones.

      Further, as the article indicates, these “political gangs” place themselves in echo chambers such that there is almost no chance of an enlightened exchange of ideas. For instance, who could disagree with the general concept of “The Golden Rule.” “Do unto others…” And yet during the Republican primary, Ron Paul voiced the opinion during a televised debate that we should have a foreign policy that seeks to emulate “The Golden Rule” and was summarily greeted by a chorus of Boos from the audience.

      I think you will find that libertarians, although not perfect, are much more intellectually consistent in their efforts to achieve peace and freedom than either of these other gangs we call political parties.

      Sorry for taking up so much space on the soap box. Just needed to vent…

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    • Thalia says:

      Which party doesn’t want to give away the family farm? The Republican party has been consistently for more spending, not less. For collecting less in taxes, and handling it by driving up the debt. There hasn’t been a Republican in office since Eisenhower who didn’t decrease the debt. So HOW do fiscal conservatives support this Republican party?

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      • Joe J says:

        Well I for one support Libertarian party. But between the Dems and Repubs. Repubs give lip service to cutting, but like all politicians lie. Dems, don’t even give lip service, they say they will increase spending, claiming it will some how lower the debt, but they lie about that.

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  9. dave says:

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    • John says:

      Strawmen are the most fun to argue against, aren’t they?

      Taking the other sides argument, twisting it to make it absolute and extreme, then arguing against that is one of the biggest reasons in why people are so divided.

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      • Thalia says:

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    • Joe J says:

      Sure you’ve heard it, or you need to change channels to something less extreme.

      But once “welfare programs are abused” goes though a very biased media, it gets churrned out as, “He wants to throw your grandma off of a cliff because he is evil.”
      Hardly discussing things rationally. We live in a world of soundbites and very biased “news” personalities.

      Short answer if you’ve never heard it, and basically about half of the country believs it. You need to be listening somewhere else.

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  10. Nathan Stockstill says:

    It seems to me that Kristof’s column is the exact opposite of what Freakonomics is trying to promote. For example: people die from complications of appendectomies — probably every day. But if Kristof wrote that appendectomies sometimes have “soul-crushing” consequences for patients’ families, would he be applauded?

    I would expect Freakonomics to demand the same level of argument it would ask of somebody arguing against appendectomies: Either identify a measure by which the costs of the safety net exceed the benefits, or offer another proposal where the evidence demonstrates shows better cost-benefit performance than the existing programs. Kristof does neither.

    Kristof writes, “… we shouldn’t try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.” Using the same analogy, one could conclude we shouldn’t use surgery to treat medical problems because surgery sometimes causes medical problems.”

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    • J1 says:

      Actually, we couldn’t; surgery doesn’t incentivize medical problems.

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    • James says:

      The problem here is that our poverty-fighting appendectomies are being performed by the equivalent of 19th-century surgeons: plentifully supplied with good intentions, but with no idea of asepsis and an ingrained reluctance to consider the idea that infections might be caused by organisms they can’t see.

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  11. Shawn Fremstad says:

    The problem with this particular Kristof piece is that it is largely devoid of facts, relying instead on sensationist urban myths (in this case rural ones) instead of real research. And the few facts he includes are wrong (for, example, the percentage of low-income kids receiving SSI is a half of what he claims it is). Every few years, a journalist write a story like this about SSI, GAO and SSA investigate it and find the claims to be empirically unfounded, and lots of time is wasted that could have been better spend on real reform efforts.

    Also note that he doesn’t tell us that Richard Burkhauser’s was published by the AEI Press–that’s right, the same place that gave us “makers vs. takers” or that Burkauser’s proposals on Supplemental Security (basically blockgranting it) are so far out of the mainstream, that even the House Republican leadership has not endorsed them. Although maybe Kristof’s brave call to cut assistance to severely disabled children will help them change their mind on that, and further polarize our politics.

    Supplemental Security isn’t a perfect program. But stories like Kristof’s have the unfortunate effect of generating more heat than light and distract policymakers from more mundane, but less sensationalistic, efforts to further improve how the program works for severely disabled children and the parents who care for them.

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  12. tioedong says:

    I agree. I hate to open my email or facebook because I am stuck seeing the “two minutes of hate” talking points. I expect this from the extreme right, but why do my educated and compassionate fellow democratic friends seem to think “hate whitey” and “evil stupid christianists” straw man tweets are okay?

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    • Kevin P. says:

      I agree with this. Conservatives and the far right can often be over the top. But they don’t claim to be tolerant, inclusive and respectful of diversity. The tolerant, inclusive liberals are sometimes far more obnoxious.

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  13. paris says:

    I believe this is all true and people need to look at both sides of things instead of just one.

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  14. Dave Chapman says:

    I went to High School with people like that.
    It was pretty scary.

    The parents want the kids to be ignorant, just like they are,
    and really object if the schools try to do too much teaching.
    “You don’t want them kids too educated – it make ’em uppity.”

    The assumption that many Middle-Class people make that everybody
    has Middle-Class values is really, really incorrect.

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  15. Arvind says:

    Interesting blog. Reading it some questions arose:

    a) How representative is the Appalachian anecdote? I

    b) What is the quality of the evidence and data backing up the statement that “some” young people do not join the military because it is easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments. How much is “some”

    You characterize Kristoff as fact-based writer. Could you point to the specific pieces that Kristoff has written that are rich in data and facts on this topic. I could not find them. Found a lot of anecdotes. And the challenge as you well know with anecdotes is that you always have anecdotes supporting a completely opposite conclusion.

    Would be great if you could cite for the benefit of the reader work that has systematically and scientifically documented the issues covered in this blog.

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  16. Jill says:

    See:, from national Children’s SSI expert Tom Yates, specifically:

    “…the Op-Ed makes two glaring errors about the childhood SSI program and then uses those mistakes to paint the entire program as misguided and wasteful. First, Mr. Kristof suggests that children were and are being found disabled and eligible for SSI due to illiteracy. I have worked with the childhood SSI program since 1988 and I can definitively state that the fact that a child is illiterate does not by itself qualify him or her for SSI monthly benefits. Second, Mr. Kristoff states that 55 percent of disabilities covered by SSI are “fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation.” Data from the 2011 SSI Annual Statistical Report (Table 21) provides that 10.4 percent of children receive SSI based on intellectual disability, a far cry from Mr. Kristof’s 55 percent.”

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  17. Kiru says:

    Hmm… I remember almost exactly this debate 15-20 years ago.

    The right was arguing that welfare’s dependency was dangerous, the left thought the right was trying to starve anyone who wasn’t white and rich.

    I think you might be suffering from a bit of a recentist bias.

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  18. cal says:

    “This is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.”

    Having been poor growing up and being on the receiving end of various welfare programs I really doubt this is widespread-poor people aren’t sitting around thinking about how to game the system. For most welfare money is like manna from heaven not something really understood but just a mysterious gift. Economics is supposed to be involved with understanding the behavior of the participants involved and the big part of the failure of trying to fix poverty is the inability of the decision makers to understand the behavior of the people in poverty.

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