Most people agree that the government should help the needy. That consensus falls apart only when we realize that we must define the needy. Not being able to feed one’s family certainly qualifies, but how about not having a car?
Does a lack of access to the Internet constitute neediness? A few years ago, social media started filling up with outraged complaints about “Obama phones,” a supposedly new program in which welfare recipients got free cellphones. (This was actually an update of an old program that helped subsidize phone service for low-income households.) We can easily think of food and clothing as necessities, but we can be stingier about providing “modern conveniences” to all, even though it can be impossible to find and then keep a job these days without being constantly tethered to the Internet.
A more recent controversy involved 25,000 public-housing tenants whose incomes had risen above the level that qualified them for government subsidies. Some federal housing officials initially defended keeping upwardly mobile tenants in public housing. One wrote, “There are positive social benefits from having families with varying income levels residing in the same property.”
But the political consensus is that families who move up the ladder must be evicted. They are no longer needy, and they don’t deserve a break on their rent. But if they become homeowners, they can get a tax break in the form of the mortgage interest deduction. By the rules of American politics, any family that discovers homeownership to be more expensive than anticipated is considered highly needy.
Is someone needy because he or she cannot afford to attend college? Lots of Americans think so, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the presidential candidate who said, “College is supposed to help people achieve their dreams” as she announced a $350 billion plan to help reduce tuition—and, thus, student debt—at public colleges and universities.
We would quickly run out of compassion in this world if we tried giving it to everyone who couldn’t achieve their dreams. And while a college degree greatly widens employment opportunities, a massive program to reduce student-loan debt may not be the most direct or efficient way to lift people out of poverty.
Even a confirmed big-government proponent like the former labor secretary Robert Reich is dubious about the value of such an effort, writing on his blog: “America clings to the conceit that four years of college are necessary for everyone, and looks down its nose at people who don’t have college degrees. This has to stop. Young people need an alternative. That alternative should be a world-class system of vocational-technical education.”
Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to suggest shifting resources to trade schools, nor are many other presidential candidates. The most reliable voters and campaign contributors are in the middle class, and they are not looking for alternatives to a college education. Holding down tuition costs and student-loan debt would certainly benefit many Americans who are seeking a way out of poverty, but this would be a spillover (trickle-down?) effect. The political objective is to help people who express a need (lower college costs) but are not necessarily the neediest in our society.
The neediest have trouble just showing up on political radar, and, to be fair, government policies are not the only way to provide them with assistance. This fall, Danny Meyer, a New York restaurant owner, banned tipping at his restaurants, instead paying staff entirely through menu prices, and his private-sector innovation has a lot to do with relative neediness.
Mr. Meyer told The New York Times that over the past three decades the income for waitstaff has gone up by 200 percent while the income for kitchen workers has risen by only 25 percent. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker explained, “All the big tippers buying overpriced Bordeaux and giving the waiter twenty per cent, in other words, is of no help to the kid in the kitchen chopping onions for (relative) pennies.” The visibly needy—the tired-looking, perspiring waitstaff running around to please customers—get our notice, while those toiling in the back for less pay don’t cross our minds.
Helping the needy should be a major issue as we head toward the next election. Our biases about who qualifies as needy should also be part of that debate.