Welfare Recipients: Moochers or Rational Actors?

      Often, people who accept and stay on welfare are accused of being mere moochers. To some extent, they do exhibit the primary characteristic of greed: the desire for something that belongs to someone else by compulsion or collusion instead of a trade of value. However, to leave it as simply as that fuels the lack of understanding as to how to remedy the welfare state problem that exists in America today.

      First, let me state it rather directly: people who seek out and stay on welfare for seemingly indefinite periods are rational actors. This may shock some people, baffle others, and even irritate a few; however, that does not diminish the fact it is true. A rational actor is someone who is concerned about their own prosperity and makes choices with the goal of maximizing this objective. In fact, all people are rational actors; we just do not always quantify what prosperity means in the same way as others do.

    The hazard at this point is to be side-tracked by a lengthy discussion that dispels the idea that humans are altruistic (which is the alternative to rational choice), but I will (mostly) avoid that for the time being. Instead, I will use a commonly cited example of altruism and explain briefly why it is incorrect. Fire fighters are often used as examples of altruistic actors; however, they get paid (rather well in many cases), have excellent work schedules, girls tend to like them, and society often idolizes them. Is there risk involved? Of course, but they face great risk—as we all do—by getting in their cars to drive to work. This idea that fear is a primary factor in all people’s decision-making is driven by those who place increased value on personal safety. To a person that is a natural thrill seeker or one that loves accomplishing things others may not dare, being a fire fighter is not altogether frightening or discouragingly risky. It is, instead, a rather rational choice.

       How does this relate to the welfare state? In a very important way, it highlights how people value things differently, some place great value on safety, some on personal “glory,” and others place increased value on wealth accumulation. People who accept being on welfare for extended—or indefinite—periods of time clearly have a high value on security. Additionally, it is likely they place a high value on rest or recreation. When we value recreation over wealth the ability to be free of the burden of work is much more important than having things or money. Conversely, those who value wealth are happy to trade hours of the day for success.

      Here is a scenario to illustrate why welfare recipients are rational actors. Let’s imagine a man named Jim—and his family—are on a myriad of assistance programs that net him the cash equivalent of $26,000/yr and he is offered a job making $32,000/yr. Will he take it? Let us look at the considerations that enter into this decision. First, Jim will have to take 40 hours of his week and trade it for $6,000/yr (that is $500/mth or $2.88/hr). On top of that Jim will have to pay payroll taxes and possibly (unlikely at that income level) income taxes. Would you do that? Ahhh, I can hear the ethical argument now…an argument that I fully sympathize with. So, let’s put it in different terms, if you made $30,000/yr working part time and got offered a full time job for $36,000/yr and this job entailed increased costs, would you take it? It is highly unlikely that you would, unless other considerations enter into your decision such as entry into the job of your dreams.

      People stay on welfare perpetually because they literally cannot afford to get off of it. Things like poor education, increasing minimum wages for entry level occupations, and an increasing menu of programs make this problem worse all the time. Individuals make choices based on individual circumstances, as they well should. What we must do is avoid continuing to lash out at people making a perfectly rational choice; instead, we would be much better served by actually trying to remedy the circumstances which drive these choices. Expanding the welfare state perpetuates the (relative) poverty it intends to cure and reduces the alternatives people have to staying mired in the muck of our burgeoning welfare state. And to completely answer the title question, they do qualify as moochers as well.

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