4147238714_facaaa770c_oAnother interesting early idea that’s popped up in thinking about free will and politics is our differing views on public benefit programs for children and for adults. Many people are in favor in investing in early education and social/nutritional assistance for low-income children, often in the pursuit of ‘equal opportunity.’ Fewer, on either side of the aisle, are in favor of giving low/no-income adults the unconditional nutritional/educational/social assistance many need to survive and thrive.

A clear manifestation of this was President Clinton’s “welfare-to-work” reforms that changed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program – which gave states generous matching funds – with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – which contained stricter time limits and work requirements. This bill, appropriately enough, was entitled the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.”

It’s politically unpalatable to argue that adults don’t need to take “personal responsibility” for their lives, but this approach conveniently ignores the social, historical, and contextual determinants of any given individual’s income level and baseline wealth. Yet this is a fight that even the most progressive hesitate to take up. For instance, in a recent report on how welfare reform’s work requirements affects on youth, authors Lisa Dodson and Randy Albelda poignantly document how low-wage jobs fail to provide the stability needed for prosperous families and given few opportunities for upward advancement. From this argument, however, they don’t conclude that the work requirement should be rolled back.

“The alternative we seek is not non-employment for low-income parents supplemented by government support,” they write, “although for some families there may be times when that is the only or best solution.” Instead, the authors insist that the solution lies in better paying jobs with better benefits.

Although the ethos of ‘bootstrapping’ and ‘making oneself’ can be seen as central to being ‘American,’ I think that the sentiment of ‘helping one’s neighbor’ and ‘taking care of the less fortunate’ also lives strong. If we were willing to concede that individuals have significant constraints on their ability to “create themselves,” then maybe we would be more generous in our social policy, both towards children and adults.

Photo credit: ErvinNoordin