It’s More Complicated Than That…

H.L. Mencken famously said that for every problem, there’s a solution that’s clear, simple  and wrong.

That’s an observation that has escaped lawmakers and economists for a long time, although in the last several years, many of them have come (grudgingly) to recognize its wisdom.

For a long time, economists predicted human behaviors using a “cost/benefit” framework; incentives were  “profit maximizing” and costs were, well, costs.  Of course, real human beings aren’t so one-dimensional. We don’t behave as the economists predicted, because what constitutes an incentive or disincentive for any particular person cannot be so neatly identified.

It isn’t that we humans don’t act in our own self-interest–we do. It’s just that “self-interest” means different things to different people. Teachers who could make more money in the private sector are rewarded by making a difference in children’s’ lives; lawyers for public-interest organizations forgo substantial monetary rewards but derive immense satisfaction from “doing justice.”

“Value” and “reward” are inescapably subjective.

The incentives to which people respond–what impels someone to work, or to work at this job rather than that one–is often a matter of cultural values and expectations. That’s why the widespread belief that a social safety net creates a “culture of dependency” has always been flawed. People don’t work just for sustenance; they work for cultural acceptance, meaning, self-esteem and personal pride, among other reasons.

A recent cross-national study has recently confirmed the lack of a relationship between the generosity of a country’s social safety net and the diligence with which unemployed people look for work. (It also found that receipt of social benefits didn’t make people happier or more satisfied. Depending on the kindness of strangers simply keeps folks fed and/or housed, not cheerful.)

In other words, feeding people who’ve lost their jobs doesn’t make them stop looking for work, and providing minimal support to those who are down and out doesn’t make us suckers.

It might, however, make us better humans.


  1. The problem of course is that those who might benefit from the findings of these studies no longer believe in social science or empirical evidence; they refuse to allow “liberal” ideas like logic or truth get in the way of idea logical purity which provides the only informational basis upon which to devise policy.

  2. i find it amusing and irritating that experts who have never been homeless, never been poor, never been hungry or have never wondered how much they will eat today are the ones who seem to know alot about people who get benefits. if you’ve never been one of the above your opinion isn’t valid to me. statistics and analysis and supposed psychological analysis of people don’t hold water when it comes to the poor and the homeless.
    snap benefits ARE NOT enough to survive on. if you receive ssi or ssd you are usually receiving enough to survive…but only in subsidized housing. it isn’t a matter of living a life of luxury so you drop out of the job market. next time you want to know about the poor….ask a poor person. next time you want to know about being homeless…ask a homeless person. don’t ask someone with a well paying job who has never slept in a mission or on a bench or has never been hungry with no way to have something to eat.

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