Policies that make the poor less poor

We should have policies to make the poor less poor.
Unfortunately, policies explicitly aimed at trying to make the poor less poor typically backfire. A la The Shirky Principle, this blunt approach tends to preserve the problem rather than curing it.

The way you reduce poverty is by helping people with issues that predispose them to poverty without requiring them to be poor already to get the help. If you have to be poor to get help and help is means tested, it's a quagmire that's nigh impossible to escape.

Good quality, inexpensive public transit can be helpful. When I was homeless, I hardly ever used public transit in downtown San Diego where bus fare was $2.50 per trip.

I used it more regularly after going to the North County (what locals in San Diego County call the northern part of the county). Bus fare there was $1.75 per trip and that 75 cent difference was a big deal to me.

I then moved to Fresno where bus fare was $1.25 and I no longer needed exact change. I could put in a $10 bill to pay for bus fare for me and my two sons and get a ticket back that was worth $6.25.

From a distance, it looked like an ordinary ticket and could be used for future bus trips until it was all gone. The fact that it looked like a "normal" ticket meant that it didn't mark me as someone carrying something of any particular value. When I was homeless, that mattered a great deal to me because I was so vulnerable.

In downtown San Diego, some of the homeless services had bus tokens available but you generally had to prove some kind of need, like showing that you had a medical appointment. They didn't simply give you bus tokens because you were homeless and wished to go somewhere.

I have a disability but didn't have money to get a doctor's appointment to fill out the paperwork proving I qualified for discounted bus fare as a disabled person. One of the things I wished for while homeless was a program that would provide me with free access to a doctor for purposes of filling out such paperwork and getting me access to the discount to which I am legally entitled but have never received.

If you help someone with a permanent disability get their disabled fare card for public transit, that benefit doesn't go away if their life improves because of it. They don't stop qualifying for discounted bus fare if having cheaper access to public transit helps them find a job or otherwise improve their situation.

It isn't dependent on their income or their housing status. It is dependent on their physical impairment.

In my case, without ever managing to arrange to get my disabled fare card, my life got better simply moving to places with cheaper bus fare and a lower cost of living. Keeping public transit affordable and/or making sure it is good quality and will get people where they need to go can help poor people more than other groups who are more likely to own their own vehicle.

It can also improve the quality of life of individuals who are handicapped or elderly and can no longer drive a car. This can help reduce the degree to which such populations are at risk of sliding into poverty.

Generally speaking, if you wish to help the poor or to reduce poverty, you should be looking to help ordinary people do some of the following things:
  • Access housing that is within their budget.
  • Get to where they need to go conveniently and inexpensively.
  • Get access to education, training and credentialing.
  • Get access to earned income.
  • Get access to things that support their health, whether that is nutritious food, adequate exercise, clean air or medical treatment.
Exactly how you do that will depend in part on the details of who lives in your community, what needs they have and what services the community provides, both in terms of local business and in terms of government or charitable services.

It is possible to design policies that make the poor less poor, but you have to be a little less direct than quantifying how much income makes you officially poor and targetting people who meet that criteria. You have to consciously and intentionally find ways to define what needs are not being met and meet those needs without using means testing per se as the metric by which poor people get served.

It can be a little frustrating in that an elegant and effective solution will take more work than designing a means-tested program. But if your real goal is to help people, this is how you actually do that.

Given the high cost of car ownership, simply making it possible for more people to live without a car can help reduce poverty in real terms. If you can get your needs met by walking, biking and using public transit, then a relatively low income isn't necessarily a big hardship.

HN Discussion

Popular Posts