Before he was a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Ben Carson appeared on The View to talk welfare reform—an issue that continues to be debated in GOP circles on and off the campaign trail. He argued that the social safety net could breed dependency among America’s poor. “You rob someone of their incentive to go out there and improve themselves,” he said, and that’s “not doing them any favors.”
What would be more empowering, Carson suggested, “is to use our intellect and our resources to give those people a way up and out.” That’s surely correct. And the good news is that growing evidence around the world suggests there’s a simple design for a safety-net system that may not create dependency—and may help lift people up and out of poverty: Give poor people cash without conditions attached, and it turns out they use it to buy goods and services that improve their lives and increase their future earnings potential.
It’s a system that policymakers in many countries are loathe to try. They worry, in part, that recipients will waste the money—spending it on, say, flat-screen televisions, cigarettes, and alcohol rather than nutritious food or school supplies. For example, the United States has a very (very) small cash-transfer program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides a maximum of $497 per month to a family of four. Even though this cash assistance amounts to only about 8 percent of average household income in the United States, lawmakers frequently feel it necessary to limit how beneficiaries spend the money. Take the Kansas legislature, which in April passed a law specifying that the assistance could not be used to get a tattoo, go to a movie, get your nails done, buy lingerie, or purchase cruise tickets.