“Welfare makes people lazy.” The notion is buried so deep within mainstream political thought that it can often be stated without evidence. It was explicit during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) was nicknamed “We Piddle Around” by his detractors. It was implicit in Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Even today, it is an intellectual pillar of conservative economic theory, which recommends slashing programs like Medicaid and cash assistance, partly out of a fear that self-reliance atrophies in the face of government assistance.
…the United States, where a core mission of the Republican Party is to reduce government aid to the poor, on the assumption that it makes them lazy. This attitude is supported by many conservative economists, who argue that government benefits implicitly reward poverty and thus encourage families to remain poor—the idea being that some adults might reject certain jobs or longer work hours because doing so would eliminate their eligibility for programs like Medicaid.
But this concern has little basis in reality. One of the latest studies on the subject found that Medicaid has “little if any” impact on employment or work hours. In research based in Canada and the U.S., the economist Ioana Marinescu at the University of Pennsylvania has found that even when basic-income programs do reduce working hours, adults don’t typically stay home to, say, play video games; instead, they often use the extra cash to go back to school or hold out for a more desirable job.
But the standard conservative critique of Medicaid and other welfare programs is wrong on another plane entirely. It fails to account for the conclusion of the Prospera research: Anti-poverty programs can work wonders for their youngest beneficiaries. It’s true north of the border, as well. American adults whose families had access to prenatal coverage under Medicaid have lower rates of obesity, higher rates of high-school graduation, and higher incomes as adults than those from similar households in states without Medicaid, according to a 2015 paper from the economists Sarah Miller and Laura R. Wherry. Another paper found that children covered by Medicaid expansions went on to earn higher wages and require less welfare assistance as adults.