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Sterlization idea needs rethink to address attitudes

State Rep. John LaBruzzo has floated the idea of a new natality program designed to discourage births among those of lower socioeconomic status in the belief that this will reduce the number of people “trapped” in a cycle of poverty and thereby reduce welfare expenditures on them, simultaneously easing the tax burden on others. But the plan, something along the lines of paying $1,000 for voluntary sterilizations of women, fails both conceptually and practically.

LaBruzzo’s idea addresses logic known by mankind for millennia and less than a quarter century ago relevant to welfare policy was addressed empirically by Charles Murray’s groundbreaking Losing Ground: subsidize people who behave unproductively through receipt of welfare monies (as opposed to the deserving poor who use such funds for more productive means), and you get more of that behavior. In the 1970s in fact, Murray did find the welfare structure then did provide a small incentive for bringing children in the world precisely to acquire either separation from a family unit funded by government or to increase that funding.

But where LaBruzzo miscalculates is in that his proposal deals with the actual derivative behavior, not the attitudes behind it. Copulation by women to produce more children, or for its own sake with the consequences of having children reduced by assurance of a government payout (and with little consequence to the randy male), stems from a short-horizon desire that itself may be adjusted through appropriate government policy. That is, to cure the disease (inferior attitudes with behavioral consequences), you must attack the disease itself rather than it symptoms (the behavior).

LaBruzzo would do well to study Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City where the author differentiates between a “present orientation” and “future orientation” among individuals. Those oriented to the present essentially live only for today with little thought to their future lives and or to making sacrifices of short-term pleasure for longer-term security. Those oriented to the future are willing to make these sacrifices for much longer-spanning and more lucrative futures. The point Murray made was welfare policy as it existed then did little to encourage a future orientation. Since, while the welfare reforms passed in 1996 explicitly introduced mechanisms to encourage this, many have responded with such change although some have not.

Thus, practical policy changes which produced sharp declines in welfare caseloads have demonstrated the rectitude of both Banfield’s conceptualization and Murray’s empirical verification of them, and therefore if LaBruzzo wishes to optimize the reduction of welfare spending and of birthrates of those likely to produce children who also will end up on welfare, biological re-engineering does not in any way change the attitudes or even behavior of the targeted individuals. He must understand that copulating thoughtlessly stems from an attitude rooted in present orientation which thereby is connected to many other attitudes that lead to lack of productivity and therefore service to society. Thus, why not attempt to change all of these attitudes with policy intended to alter the basic mindset? That would produce the only effective long-term solution instead of policy that acts merely as triage. 

The idea also betrays a mistaken understanding of human potential and social behavior – in other words, it fails to realize that someone on welfare at 20 inured to a present-oriented life by 30 or 40 may have a completely different outlook. What if the sterilization choice was made early on encouraged by this policy? Then either an expensive, medically invasive, and potentially impossible undoing of it would have to occur which may discourage some, or it doesn’t get done at all.

In these cases, LaBruzzo has defeated his own purpose: the more productive citizens would be unable to reproduce by his own policy intended to increase their proportion of births. He fails to appreciate the dynamism of free markets and production of policy to remove government as much as possible from them that coupled with appropriate welfare reform largely would obviate the formation of a large, self-perpetuating underclass. Again, while LaBruzzo’s proposal might increase the chances of a woman making it out of poverty without too many children dragging her down, it does nothing to encourage her to acquire the attitudes necessary to want to make it out of poverty without which she is unlikely to.

It’s good to think creatively about a large issue as this, for which LaBruzzo deserves credit, especially an issue that he notes few want to consider. Certainly he has done a much more honest job of this than the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which prefers ignorance (there is no “presumably” in “better-educated people who presumably pay more tax revenue to the government,” it’s a fact that higher-income individuals who pay the vast bulk of taxes typically are better-educated) and cheap shots (“His 81st House District … [essentially] is the same district that sent white supremacist David Duke to the Legislature in 1989”).

But it must be done in an informed fashion with proper understanding of the human condition and consequences of policy. His current iteration does not suggest this.

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