The Tsarnaev family, including the suspected terrorists and their parents, benefited from more than $100,000 in taxpayer-funded assistance — a bonanza ranging from cash and food stamps to Section 8 housing from 2002 to 2012, the Herald has learned.
It’ll be a hard press to find a better example of someone doing more harm than good by way of selective disclosure of information.
There are indeed people who abuse the social welfare system out there. There are also people with a strong skill set who can indeed reap the equivalent of a middle-class lifestyle from the social welfare system without “cheating.” In my day job, I sometimes evict such people when their income streams are disrupted for various reasons. I suspect that while such people exist, they are rare.
One hundred thousand dollars over the course of eleven years is not milking the system for all it’s worth. It’s an average of just over $750 a month. Compare to cost of living in Boston. Apparently there is some concern that the elder brother’s extended trip to Russia was somehow subsidized by the government. Indirectly, perhaps, but that’s still a very relaxed standard of rationality to apply to the information so breathlessly reported by the Herald.
$750 a month worth of public assistance is simply not enough to survive in a major metropolitan area. I doubt it covers rent — even in a bad neighborhood. Other income had to be coming in to that household.
So what’s the point of being outraged that the Tsarnaev family wasn’t doing well financially for a long time, and received public assistance? Why ought we to care?
If the point is to say that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are bad people, well, they demonstrated that rather effectively two weeks ago. It’s not like anyone is defending the morality of the bombings and the police chase.
If the point is to say that being on welfare somehow caused the boys being raised in that environment to morally malform, this is still an incomplete argument. We’ve gone well beyond the sphere of a reasonable chain of causation to say that because the household received Section 8, the teenagers decided to blow up the marathon. Something else happened because the one thing obviously does not lead inevitably to the other.
If the point is to say that people who get welfare are somehow morally bad and a bunch of cheaters by virtue of their receipt of welfare, well, maybe, but you can’t plot a curve from a single point. What does that have to do with these brothers being violent criminals? How is this anything but clumsy class warfare?
It shouldn’t be controversial to point out that the social welfare system is imperfect. Nor that there are people who use the extant system(s) as intended, as a safety net to get through periods where self-sufficiency is lost through no fault of the person’s own. We can all agree that there are people who extract benefits from the system for longer than and in an amount greater than what seems appropriate or necessary, even if we disagree on where the lines of appropriateness and need ought to be drawn.
So if the point is to say that we need to re-examine the breadth and actual use of the social welfare system, fine. Let’s not start that examination by being outraged at the most publicly-pilloried and morally despicable violent criminals America has seen in a decade. Let’s instead have that conversation after we’ve figured out a few more broad points.
- Do we as a society have a moral and/or ethical obligation to use our collective wealth to help poor people? In an age of governmental resources which are contracting, to what extent are we willing to balance our need for collective fiscal discipline with that moral obligation?
- What is the reason we have social welfare in the first place? Compassion? A step to realizing an advantage to society in general? Some sort of investment for which we hope to realize a return of some kind? Preventative maintenance against some worse expense later? An engine for social change?
- Have we created any perverse incentives with the manner in which that welfare is allocated? Are those perverse incentives things that are susceptible of being controlled, or are they things that we can tolerate? Is it even possible to understand these incentives divorced from our own political perspectives?
- Are there particular kinds of people we want to benefit? Why are they to be preferred?
- What kinds of strings ought to be attached to receipt of social welfare? For instance, does the recipient give up a measure of privacy? Ought a recipient be required to obtain education as a condition of receipt? Are such conditions realistically achievable? In order to answer this question, we must be clear about why the social welfare system exists.
- Is policing against abuse of the system economically efficient? Or does that even matter? Again, we need to remember why we have a system at all before we can address these issues coherently and effectively.
It’s not all that important to note that some people who receive welfare are criminals. Making the correlation does more harm than good. But until we understand, on both a moral and policy level, why we do these things in the first place, we’re going to get confused and incoherent policies created from a distorted set of priorities.
And it’s not until we have reached some degree of consensus about these questions that we can intelligently tackle questions of how we might reform and budget our social welfare systems. We ought to have these discussions — various forms of social welfare represent a majority of government spending at both the state and federal levels. It’s hard to have these discussions because they get tainted with other issues like race, fear, greed, and envy. It’s even harder to have such discussions when we let labels (like “conservative,” “libertarian,” and “liberal”) do our thinking for us.
No segment of the public dialogue benefits from correlating the Tsarnaev family’s receipt of social welfare with the Tsarnaev brothers’ awful crimes. Class warfare — whether that come in the flavor of beating up on the poor or the flavor of sparking resentment of the wealthy — isn’t likely to prevent future violence.