Perverse Incentives: When Uncle Sam Becomes Dr. Ruth

Capitol in Shadow copy

by Richard Panzer

Richard_PanzerEvery area of life involves choices that have a moral dimension. Whether we enter careers in business, education, government, science, health, art, or religious ministry, each one of us needs to be aware of incentives that could bring us closer to or further away from the original purpose that motivated us to begin with. After all, each system has its own openly stated, or sometimes hidden, incentives.

In this context, the recent article by Scott Simonds provides a valuable discussion about the role of government and its benefits to society. He makes compelling arguments, and certainly there are many dedicated people doing important work in government service, but if one looks closely, it also becomes apparent that governmental incentives can lead to the opposite of what any fair-minded person would want.

The federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or welfare) program, where substantial benefits are offered to mothers with dependent children based on one main condition — that the mothers not be married — is just a small part of a larger, disturbing pattern.

Simonds expresses doubt that religious agencies would be able to take on the burden of caring for the needy in this country. Maybe so, but when Uncle Sam gets involved there are often strings attached. Consider government actions that force religious organizations that do help those in need to choose between following government regulations and the dictates of their faith. Catholic adoption agencies in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington, DC, have been forced to shut down because they believe that, all else being equal, it is best for orphans to be placed with an adopting mother and father who are married. Isn’t that what most Americans believe? Isn’t that what you and I believe? Even if not, shouldn’t there be room for diversity in adoption agency policies? After all, isn’t the goal to help more, not less, orphans find loving homes? How does shutting down faith-based agencies help needy orphans?

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