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. dave says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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