Oren Cass is one of the leading conservative domestic-policy wonks. He previously served as policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, but now his former boss has gone soft on the poor, and Cass has taken to the New York Times op-ed page to argue that Republicans should reject the plan devised by their former standard-bearer.
Romney’s new child-allowance plan incorporates the strongest fiscal arguments made by conservatives while still appealing to liberals. The old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, suffered from a flaw: It was designed only to help the very poor, and so its benefits phased out when a family’s income rose above the poverty line, essentially penalizing them for earning money and therefore creating a disincentive for work. Romney addresses this by keeping the income support in place until families are earning well over six figures.
What’s not to like? Well, conservatives object to the fact that Romney would give money to all parents, whether or not they’re working full time. According to Cass, this encourages poor people not to work simply by allowing them to subsist on a minimum income.
There are several vexing features to his argument. The first is that he believes all parents, including single parents, should be encouraged to maximize their work hours, which seems to be in tension with other conservative beliefs about the importance of strong parenting. Does it really help the kids if Mom trudges out every night to catch the bus for her late shift at McDonalds? Cass simply assumes the answer is yes without explaining why.
The second strange feature is that Cass does not provide any research substantiating his belief that a basic income will discourage people from working — or that the threat of starvation and homelessness is necessary to force low-income parents into the workforce. As Eric Levitz pointed out, conservatives have yet to produce any relevant research to support this claim.
Third, Cass suggests that it is simply obvious that Romney’s plan would give poor families so much money that they wouldn’t bother working:
A “child allowance” of $600 a month for a household with two children may seem plainly insufficient to support them, but combine it with $400 in food stamps and a $1,000 housing voucher and the case is less clear cut. Include roughly $750 per month in Medicaid payments for health care, and total annual support to the household would reach $33,000, including more than $7,000 in cash.
Cass is including housing vouchers in his calculation, which doesn’t offer an accurate picture because those vouchers are only available to about a third of people who qualify for them (because the spending level is capped). (President Biden does propose to change this and make the assistance available to every family that qualifies, but the change has not happened yet.) So the majority of poor families are not receiving that $12,000 of the hypothetical annual income that Cass lays out.
More absurdly, Cass includes the cash value of Medicaid. That accounts for $9,000 of the $33,000 this imaginary family is living on. But, of course, access to Medicaid is not something you can use to cover spending. Show me the family that includes the cash value of their hypothetical Medicaid reimbursements for future doctors visits and decides to quit their job on that basis. An unemployed libertarian economist, maybe?
The most bizarre passage in his op-ed is that Romney’s plan would leave in place the causes of poverty: “Money itself does little to address many of poverty’s root causes, like addiction and abuse; unmanaged chronic- and mental-health conditions; family instability; poor financial planning; inability to find, hold or succeed in a job; and so forth.”
Now, put aside whether these are actually the causes of poverty. Assume for the sake of argument that they are. If Romney’s plan fails to address the root causes, so what?
There are many problems we treat without addressing their root causes. Police don’t address the root causes of crime. Chemotherapy doesn’t address the root causes of cancer. Showering doesn’t solve the root causes of body odor. There are ways to alleviate many if not all of the problems Cass identifies — mental-health coverage, financial education, etc. — while still ensuring that poor families suffer less. Indeed, suffering less stress and hardship will make it easier to cope with problems like family instability, addiction, abuse, and poor financial planning. It’s quite hard to plan one’s finances when they barely cover food and shelter for your kids; on the other extreme, if you have enough money, you can have epically terrible financial-planning skills and still go on to become president of the United States.
Poverty has existed forever — since long before the welfare state. Identifying and solving the “root causes” of poverty is a difficult endeavor. Cass gestures at a grab bag of notions that he implies would solve the root causes, but there is no conservative plan to eliminate poverty via the root causes either. The question is whether we should make poverty less awful in a way that incorporates the most defensible and provable conservative insights, or treat poverty through the witch-doctor cure of making the poorest people suffer so terribly they will somehow find a way not to be poor.