Does Goverment Assistance Psychologically Damage Its Recipients?

In light of the looming fiscal cliff, the ongoing “negotiations” to avoid going over it, and the various opinions on its drivers, it is worthwhile to consider the potential effects of government assistance programs (such as TANF, SNAP, etc.) on its recipients – with an eye towards reforms.

I expect the majority of readers are familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote regarding caring for the poor:Benjamin Franklin

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor, November 1766

Now, most Americans would agree that as a compassionate country, we should provide a hand up for those who have found themselves in difficult situations, and perhaps lost the financial means to care for themselves, and/or their families. The main difference that divides Americans is how best to provide the hand up. Conservatives and libertarians would argue, on the one hand, that this is best accomplished through local charities, communities, churches, and mutual aid societies. Liberals, on the other hand, would argue that big government programs are the answer (indeed the answer to all questions).

However, given that the government assistance model is the current reality, and since the Great Society programs were introduced in the 1960’s, history has shown that the poverty rates have not dropped despite trillions in expenditures. Part of the reason is a culture of dependency, in which welfare becomes a lifestyle, perpetuated across generations, rather than temporary aid with an eye to “getting off the dole.” The question is, why do people continue to choose to stay on government programs instead of actively looking for ways to transition back into the working world?

Without a doubt, there is a certain segment of the population that would rather not work (or work as little as possible) in order to get their government checks (we all have stories about the person in the checkout line ahead of us paying for food with their EBT card, then getting into their custom-painted SUV with $1,000 rims). Despite the existence of these people, I continue that the majority of recipients would prefer to get off assistance, find a job, and start working towards a better future – yet many can’t, or don’t. Why?

One possible answer is psychological in nature: Learned Helplessness.  This phenomenon was discovered by Martin Seligman (with whom I’ve once shared a meal) and Steven Maier in their research in classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his dogs). In a nutshell, Learned Helplessness describes the feelings one develops when they believe that their actions no longer have an effect on outcomes; that nothing they do matters, or can change anything. It is not hard to imagine someone who loses their job and is forced to apply for assistance feeling somewhat helpless after months of failed attempts to find a new job and just “giving up.” Last month, 540,000 people dropped out of the workforce, and the labor participation rate dropped by 0.2% to 63.6%.

There has been some research to suggests that the recipients of these government programs suffer from increased level of depression, and that the likelihood increased the longer one is receiving such aid.  A study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found:

Forty percent of the women reported symptom levels that would likely indicate a diagnosis of clinical depression, yet very few had received any mental health services. Significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms were found in woman who grew up in households receiving financial aid, who were on welfare for more than five years, who perceived less social support to be available to them, and who reported more stress in their lives.

The study then addressed whether the depressive symptoms influenced participation in educational and training activities, employment, and success in leaving welfare within the two-year period. While symptoms of depression did not affect the likelihood of attending educational or training activities, women with more depressive symptoms were less likely to leave welfare over the two-year period. “Therefore, to get the most out of educational or training activities, and gain successful employment enabling the transition off of welfare, it may be more effective to treat those with depressive symptoms prior to beginning a program,” suggests Dr. Coiro.

The authors of the study seem to believe that psychological counseling should be included as a prerequisite to any job/transition program. Now, while I’m definitely not part of the “see it’s not their fault, it’s psychological” crowd, it seems that this might be at least something to look at in terms of helping people get off the welfare rolls. However, I think the more important implication of these findings is that it appears that government assistance programs, by their very existence, cause the recipients to be more likely to feel “helpless” about their circumstances. Thus, the self-perpetuating cycle of generation welfare and poverty is further enabled.

It would therefore be wise to take the effect that these programs have on the very people they are designed to help into consideration for future reforms. If we truly want to help people who have fallen on hard times, we have to start not by making them feel helpless, but rather giving them the tools to get themselves off of assistance programs as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Then again, we could just look to local charities, communities, churches, and mutual aid societies instead.

UPDATE [12/10/12]

Via the Hot Air Headlines: Conservatives have a point about the safety net and dependency, Nicholas Kristof writes about how some parents, whose children currently receive SSI benefits, are pulling the kids out of literacy programs for fear that they will no longer qualify for the government benefits. Shocking, but not surprising, unfortunately. What makes this type of behavior even more reprehensible is the future damage that it will inflict on the children once they become adults. Not only will it lessen the likelihood that the child will be able to have the skills necessary to find a good paying job, but given the psychological problems caused by being raised on government assistance, it becomes less likely that the child (now an adult) will be able to benefit from so-called “welfare-to-work” or job training probrams in the future. Thus further perpetuating generational poverty/welfare.

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6 thoughts on “Does Goverment Assistance Psychologically Damage Its Recipients?

    • Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed. I hope to be able to frequently add content that’s entertaining and thought provoking.

      I hope you visit often, I’ll definitely be frequenting your blog!

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