Monday, April 14, 2008

New poverty economics: bee stings and car dents

"To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale. Social conservatives have tended to argue that poor people lack the smarts or willpower to make the right choices. Social liberals have countered by blaming racial prejudice and the crippling conditions of the ghetto for denying the poor any choice in their fate. Neoconservatives have argued that antipoverty programs themselves are to blame for essentially bribing people to stay poor.

Karelis, a professor at George Washington University, has a simpler but far more radical argument to make: traditional economics just doesn't apply to the poor. When we're poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

Reducing the number of economic hardships that the poor have to deal with actually make them more, not less, likely to work, just as repairing most of the dents on a car makes the owner more likely to fix the last couple on his own. Simply giving the poor money with no strings attached, rather than using it, as federal and state governments do now, to try to encourage specific behaviors - food stamps to make sure money doesn't get spent on drugs or non-necessities, education grants to encourage schooling, time limits on benefits to encourage recipients to look for work - would be just as effective, and with far less bureaucracy. (One federal measure Karelis particularly likes is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which, by subsidizing work, helps strengthen the "reliever" effect he identifies.)" (Thanks D.)

This is a really interesting article. It makes intuitive sense to me, and the car dents analogy (read it) certainly sounds correct. I was arguing the bit about giving money a couple of days ago with MM. Here's an earlier post in which the argument is made for cash donations rather than "capacity building" or in-kind donations (as I do, for full disclosure)

1 comment:

Ms Levantine said...

Tks Rami.

My grandfather used to say that ever since the ancient Chinese invented paper money, there has not been a reason to give people anything else.