“Welfare makes people lazy.” The notion is buried so deep within mainstream political thought that it can often be stated without evidence. It was explicit during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) was nicknamed “We Piddle Around” by his detractors. It was implicit in Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Even today, it is an intellectual pillar of conservative economic theory, which recommends slashing programs like Medicaid and cash assistance, partly out of a fear that self-reliance atrophies in the face of government assistance.
Many economists have for decades argued that this orthodoxy is simply wrong—that wisely designed anti-poverty programs, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, actually increase labor participation. And now, across the world, a fleet of studies are converging on the consensus that even radical welfare programs—including basic-income programs and what are called conditional cash transfers—don’t make people any less productive.
Most notably, a 2015 meta-study of cash programs in poor countries found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work” in seven different countries: Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Philippines, Indonesia, or Morocco. Other studies of cash-grant experiments in Uganda and Nigeria have found that such programs can increase working hours and earnings, particularly when the beneficiaries are required to attend classes that teach specific trades or general business skills.