Welfare prevents crime and saves money in the long run: report

Dropping children from cash welfare rolls when they turn 18 greatly increases the likelihood that they’ll face criminal justice charges in the coming years — potentially an even costlier development for the individuals, for society and the economy than the tax-provided services.

Those are the findings of a study published Tuesday in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which dives into the longer-term effects of a 1996 overhaul to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for minor children.

That approach removes about 40% of recipients from the disability benefits ledger when they become “adults” at age 18. Minors of lower-income qualifying adult SSI participants can collect benefits, because their age is considered their disability.

But the age-based removal, the study finds, does little to capture lingering mental and behavioral conditions, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those conditions, especially without care, can limit job potential and force individuals toward theft and sex work, which is currently unregulated and illegal in the U.S.

The report dates to February, but has since been peer reviewed for wider distribution. The topic also found traction on a popular Reddit channel looking at social issues. It drew more than 2,000 comments by Tuesday afternoon.

“Traditionally, economists talk about the income effects of welfare programs in the context of the formal labor market — that welfare discourages work,” said the paper’s authors, Manasi Deshpande and Michael Mueller-Smith.

“What we find is that the income effect of welfare benefits can also manifest as reductions in criminal activity. In fact, in the SSI context, cash welfare has a much larger discouragement effect on criminal activity than it does on formal work,” they wrote.

‘Cash welfare has a much larger discouragement effect on criminal activity than it does on formal work.’

Deshpande is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, whose recent research has focused on public assistance programs and labor economics. Mueller-Smith is an assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of Michigan, whose work includes population studies and criminal justice.

One such paper proposing that benefits discourage work, by Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, suggests phase-outs of programs like cash welfare, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Obamacare subsidies mean households making roughly $10,000-$40,000 can lose almost as much in government benefits as they gain in added income by working additional hours, which he argues discourages work but also wrongly targets the working poor that the programs are most meant to help.

The new report disagrees.

Based on the authors’ calculations, the administrative costs of crime alone almost eliminated the cost savings of removing young adults from the program.

Twice as likely to be charged with a crime

Using data from the Social Security Administration and the Criminal Justice Administrative Records System, the study authors estimated the effect of losing SSI benefits at age 18 on criminal justice and employment outcomes over the next two decades.

They found that terminating the cash welfare benefits meant that youth are twice as likely to be charged with an illicit income-generating offense than they are to maintain steady employment at $15,000 a year in the labor market.

And, relative to those who stay on SSI in adulthood because they can prove a need, the dropped children lose nearly $10,000 in what would have been annual benefits in adulthood.

As a result of these early criminal charges, the annual likelihood of incarceration increases by a statistically significant 60% in the two decades following SSI removal.

Currently, just over 3 million children under the age of 18 receive Social Security benefits, accounting for 6.5% of all individuals receiving Social Security and $1.2 billion in monthly benefit payments, government data shows. But Deshpande and Mueller-Smith stress that the immediate need for income once someone is no longer receiving welfare too often leads to illicit means to attain it.

The increase in illegal activity was concentrated in what the authors call “income-generating crimes,” including theft, burglary, fraud/forgery and prostitution.

As is the case for men, the largest increase in crime for women is in theft charges. But women also have large and precise increases in fraud and forgery charges, including identity theft, and prostitution charges, the findings show.

‘Cash welfare has a much larger discouragement effect on criminal activity than it does on formal work.’

— Manasi Deshpande and Michael Mueller-Smith

And once crimes were committed, subsequent crimes carried harsher penalties and limited further legitimate earnings potential.

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Jail is expensive — for taxpayers

The study looked at the broader costs beyond an individual’s income security.

While each person removed from the program in 1996 saved the government some spending on SSI and Medicaid over the next two decades, each removal also created additional police, court and incarceration costs.

Based on the authors’ calculations, the administrative costs of crime alone almost eliminated the cost savings of removing young adults from the program.

Specifically, each individual removed from SSI in1996 saved the government $37,700 in SSI spending and $8,400 in Medicaid spending over the next two decades, plus an additional $3,000 in tax revenue from higher earnings. Each removal creates $10,800 in police and court costs and another $30,200 in incarceration costs.

Total U.S. government spending on public prisons and jails tops $80 billion annually, plus another $3.9 billion is spent on private prisons and jails, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

Expand the discussion

The Reddit discussion expressed frustration with studies that look at decades of behavior, yet seem to spark little policy change. The discussion also moved into whether just maintaining SSI as recipients mature and attempt a workforce entry would be enough. Some responders suggested this topic dovetails with Universal Basic Income, which has gained traction in California and elsewhere.

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A wide-ranging — and, its critics say, expensive — spending bill known as Build Back Better has stalled in a narrowly divided Congress. It had specific benefits for younger Americans. This Congressional inaction has also hit as many households grapple with a sharp price jumps in food and gasoline.

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“Welfare payments help raise the socioeconomic status of people if done right,” one Reddit poster said. “Therefore, a robust welfare system will help reduce crime rates. A UBI would likely make a massive difference, too, if done properly.”


Reforming Health Care for Patients in Prison

Scholars discuss the lack of uniform standards for health care provided behind bars.

Only one group of people in the United States has a constitutional right to health care—the incarcerated.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that depriving incarcerated individuals of reasonably adequate medical care violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But who decides what is reasonably adequate?

The answer is not so clear. Multiple agencies at federal, state, and local levels possess authority over correctional health care. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversees the provision of medical, dental, and mental health services in federal prisons. The vast majority of the incarcerated, however, are held in state prisons and county jails, where standards vary by state and by county.

Some facilities are accredited by private organizations such as the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), which requires compliance with certain process and quality measures. But this accreditation process remains entirely voluntary, leaving the correctional health care system without a uniform set of standards.

This lack of mandatory standards or oversight has led to pervasive inadequate care. One study found that among incarcerated individuals with a persistent medical problem, 20 percent of those in state facilities and 68 percent of those in local jails went without care. Prison medical staff also commonly fail to perform routine gynecological exams, to screen for prevalent infectious diseases, or to administer prescribed medications. Few prisons provide comprehensive medication-assisted treatment for people with substance use disorder, despite the high prevalence of the condition found among the incarcerated.

Some activists attribute this pattern of inadequate care to increasing privatization, as states seek to constrain rising correctional health care costs. In an ongoing class-action lawsuit in Arizona, incarcerated individuals allege that the state’s private health care contractor has provided “grossly inadequate” care that has led to preventable injury, disfigurement, and death. The facilities at issue in the case are NCCHC accredited, casting doubt on the efficacy of the current accreditation process.

Nearly 2 million individuals are currently incarcerated, 800,000 of whom have a chronic medical condition. In an era of mass incarceration, the substandard state of the correctional health care system has a profound impact.

In this week’s Saturday Seminar, experts discuss how increased regulation can protect the constitutional right of incarcerated people to receive adequate health care.

  • In an article in Public Health Chronicles, Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College considers modern day prison health care in the context of prison health care in the 1970’s. Reverby reviews a 1974 study of prison health care conditions and concludes that many of the concerns identified—including too few physicians, lack of follow up, and lack of primary health care—persist today. She attributes the lack of reform in part to increasing privatization of prison health care and mass incarceration. Reverby further argues that conditions will not improve until the humanity of incarcerated people is recognized and care outweighs control.
  • The Medicaid “inmate exclusion” policy makes federal Medicaid funds unavailable for medical treatment provided to incarcerated people, explains Mira K. Edmonds of the University of Michigan Law School. In an article published in the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy, Edmonds argues that the elimination of the policy is necessary to finally end the Medicaid program’s distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and to advance the recognition of health care as a human right. She contends that the introduction of Medicaid funding into prisons would come with higher federal standards of care, expanded mental health care services, and substance abuse treatments for incarcerated individuals.
  • In an article in Law & Social Inquiry, Spencer Headworth and Callie Zaborenko of Purdue University explore private accreditation trends among correctional health care practitioners. Headworth and Zaborenko compare each state’s number of NCCHC accredited physicians to the number of lawsuits alleging inadequate prison health care and to prison mortality rates. They report that higher rates of litigation predict increased accreditation but that increased accreditation has no impact on prison mortality rates. Headworth and Zaborenko conclude that correctional facilities use private accreditation as a reaction to legal threats rather than as a proactive measure to protect the health of incarcerated people.
  • The prison health care crisis has severe consequences for reproductive health, argue Lauren Kuhlik and Carolyn Sufrin of Johns Hopkins University. In an article published in the Harvard Law and Policy Review, Kuhlik and Sufrin criticize the lack of federal standards for reproductive health care behind bars. They describe individual prison policies that limit access to abortion services, permit inadequate prenatal care, and allow the shackling of pregnant people during childbirth. According to Kuhlik and Sufrin, such systemic neglect is a form of state violence and reproductive injustice. They argue that state domination of reproductive health care is a purposeful and oppressive method of carceral control.
  • Health care planning for incarcerated individuals often deemphasizes and neglects dental care despite the physical and psychosocial benefits of oral health, writes Anne S. Douds of Gettysburg College and her coauthors in an article in Annals of Health Law and Life Sciences. They argue that despite the significant oral health needs of the prison population, incarcerated people lack access to adequate dental care. For example, some states follow an “extraction only” rule, under which prison dentists will not “fill, crown, or otherwise attempt to salvage teeth.” Douds attributes the lack of dental care access to costly copays and prison health research that emphasizes medical care over dental care. Douds and her team recommend that prison dental care programs disseminate oral health educational material to incarcerated people and improve telehealth options.
  • In an article published in the Notre Dame Journal of International & Comparative Law, Juan E. Mendez of the American University Washington College of Law proposes reforms to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Mendez argues that the revised rules should recognize the “right to access” standard and adequate medical, psychiatric, and dental care. This recognition would call for measures such as an absolute prohibition on engaging in torture, the provision of medical supplies to prisons, and procedural safeguards, such as routine medical examinations, Mendez argues. Mendez also recommends providing special measures to protect vulnerable or high-risk groups such as children, mothers, and LGBTQ+ persons in the criminal justice system.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.


And for our next act … a look to the stories of 2022 | Local News

• Health care burnout. Will already-strained nurses, doctors and other health workers be able to sustain continued surges in hospitalizations?

• What more will we learn about the strength and durability of immunity derived from infection? And on the topic of immunity, what will our vaccine regimen look like in the future?

• Our flexibility. The most logical, fact-based approach to dealing with the pandemic is to adjust our behaviors based on viral spread. As our susceptibility goes up, so should our precautions. Can we do it?

New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore administers the oath of office to Kathy Hochul as New York’s governor as her husband Bill Hochul holds a Bible during a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony in the Red Room at the state Capitol.

Harry Scull Jr.

First up, Gov. Kathy Hochul unveils her 2022 agenda with her Jan. 5 State of the State address.

A month later, she, along with her challengers, will be wooing Democratic Party leaders for support in the gubernatorial primary election.

In the meantime, there will be major battles at the Capitol over tax policies, criminal justice and arguments over how to spend billions in stimulus money.

Flurries (copy)

The lights are on and the snow is falling before the Buffalo Bills-New England Patriots game at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

Watch the money, and watch the politics.