Want to Fight Poverty? Expand Welfare. Always Expand Welfare.

Catherine Rampell has a piece at the Washington Post titled “Want to fight poverty? Expand access to contraception.” As you can probably guess, the poverty solution here is to try to nudge women with low market incomes away from having families, a troubling strategy that rich folks have been eager to push in one form or another for the last couple of centuries. Despite their sometimes vicious animosity towards one another, rich liberals and rich conservatives always seem to be able to agree that poor women have too many damn babies.

Philip N. Cohen has a wonderful response to Rampell at his blog (here). In addition to Cohen’s points, I think it’s important to consider the following two points: 1) “delay or poverty” does not present a genuine choice, and 2) welfare is incredibly good and we should be trying to spend more on it, not less.

1. What Choice?

Rampell makes the point (and it’s not just her) that giving women with low market incomes free IUDs gives them “more choice over whether, when and with whom they decide to have a baby.” Rampell doesn’t spell this out entirely, but the way this sort of argument works is as follows:

Premise 1: If you can’t afford to do X, then you don’t have the choice to do X.

Premise 2: Women with low market incomes cannot afford to contracept.

Conclusion: Women with low market incomes don’t have a choice to contracept.

When put in contraception terms, Rampell and her ilk find this Senian formulation extremely compelling. But what happens if we swap out “have a child” for “contracept”?

Premise 1: If you can’t afford to do X, then you don’t have the choice to do X.

Premise 2: Women with low market incomes cannot afford to have a child.

Conclusion: Women with low market incomes don’t have a choice to have a child.

Since having a child is more costly than contracepting, it is necessarily true that any person who does not have the choice to contracept also does not have the choice to have a child. Thus, it follows that the only way to actually give women with low market incomes a choice over “whether, when and with whom they have a child” is to ensure that they have robust welfare incomes enabling them to afford to have a kid.

But Rampell does not advocate that. In fact, she specifically says the goal of free contraception is to reduce welfare outlays. Like Isabell Sawhill before her, Rampell’s goal cannot possibly be to give women with low market incomes the genuine choice to have or not have a kid, as that would require putting in place much more generous welfare benefits that make both contraception and having a kid affordable. Instead, the goal is simply to reduce the fertility of women with low market incomes by making contracepting affordable while keeping child-bearing unaffordable.

2. Welfare Is Incredibly Good And Cool

Like Nicholas Kristof and the rest of the professional liberal pundit class, Rampell is eager to tout her contraception “solution” as a welfare reducer. This bizarre desire among American liberals to cut welfare really needs to die.

Compared to other OECD countries, the US has a remarkably high rate of child poverty:

This is in no small part because it has such an extremely low level of family welfare benefits:

How an American liberal looks at this sort of graph and concludes that what we should be targeting is lower welfare outlays is beyond me. Is the concern that we aren’t enough like Turkey, whose child poverty rate is actually higher than ours?

I’d submit that we should want to be more like the high-income European countries with much lower child poverty rates. Getting there would mean increasing family welfare benefit expenditures by as much a 470%. In dollar terms, we should be talking about increasing outlays on family welfare benefits by over $400 billion per year. Done well, such a welfare expansion would dramatically cut poverty and, by making child-having universally affordable, actually give all women the genuine capability to make the family choices that the Sawhill/Rampell position claims to be interested in.

I don’t know if American liberals think it’s a mark of seriousness to talk about how their plans will reduce welfare spending, or if they think they are really sticking it to conservatives by taking their anti-welfare terrain. But whatever the reason, this sort of stuff needs to stop. The US welfare state is extremely tiny compared to other countries elsewhere in the world and this accounts (in large part) for why we have much higher levels of poverty, inequality, economic insecurity, health uninsurance, and so on. The liberal goal should not be to find minor ways to reduce welfare outlays, but instead to push for massively increasing them.