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Where Is The Starting Line Of Life?


“We believe in fairness at the starting line of life, not forced equality at the finish line.” This is an important question for conservatives. It is practically a rite of passage for us to bust out some version of this line at a dinner-table discussion.

And why wouldn’t it be? This popular refrain certainly makes for a sparkling sound bite. But the footrace metaphor offers something more than rhetorical power. It also plays an important philosophical role.

Most conservatives are not purists who reject any government role in leveling the playing field. But once we accept some redistribution, we need a limiting principle to keep from sliding down the slippery slope into socialism. We need a test for determining whether to resist or applaud a particular policy.

The notion of a socioeconomic “starting line” provides that. It says that we’re down with giving people a fair shot to earn their own success, but we aren’t cool with spreading the wealth around after the fact. We serve justice by setting people up to succeed in the American meritocracy, not by decoupling merit and success.

This paradigm is central to the modern right. Milton Friedman put it eloquently it in his 1975 classic Capitalism and Freedom. He writes that classical liberals “distinguish between equality of rights and equality of opportunity, on the one hand, and material equality or equality of outcome on the other.” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers echoed this frame in this year’s State of the Union response. She admonished President Obama for “talk[ing] a lot about income inequality” when “the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality.” And just last week, Senator Rob Portman took the podium at the American Enterprise Institute—where I work—to argue that “the income gap gets the headlines, but it’s the opportunity gap that should concern us all.”

So this distinction between opportunity and outcomes, between the starting line and the finish line, is pivotal. The free enterprise movement is committed to the idea that we can intervene in the former while leaving the latter alone.

Unfortunately, this approach has a problem. The issue is pretty simple. “It is hard to find the starting line.”

That’s how the economist Arthur Okun phrased it in his legendary book Equality and Efficiency. He meant that separating people’s opportunities from their outcomes sounds easy in theory, but proves difficult in practice. It is hard enough when we’re dealing with individual adults, and it is extremely tough when we look across generations. And important new research has muddied the waters more than ever.

Why do opportunity policies fail?

Conservatives have little patience for no-strings-attached transfers, but many are amenable to things like vocational training. Such programs seem like straightforward ways to expand opportunity. Offer classes and guidance to people who seek to learn new skills and become more attractive hires. That’s how you offer a hand up—and that beats a handout eight days a week.

It may not be that easy. In their new book Scarcity, behavioral economist Sendil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir complicate that distinction. They note that many poor people fail to follow through on promising opportunities—even, curiously enough, when money is no object. Across the world, poor people are disproportionately unlikely to get their children vaccinated even when all they have to do is sign up; they are disproportionately reluctant to wash their hands even though this is cost-free. Low-income Americans on Medicaid, which pays for their prescriptions, still fail to take their medication regularly.

This phenomenon defies the assumptions of standard economics. People whose lives are teetering on the brink have more incentive than anyone to seize on free and low-cost opportunities to improve their lot. But, the data show, they are in fact the least likely group to take advantage of these opportunities. What gives?

Mullainathan and Shafir developed several experiments to find out. In one study, they administered a cognitive test to farmers in India at various times of the year. The test, called the “Stroop task,” measures fluid intelligence and executive control. To paraphrase, it looks both at the subjects’ raw mental bandwidth and their ability to focus and channel that horsepower. The researchers found that farmers systematically did worse in the months leading up to the harvest, when the funds from the last harvest were starting to run out. The stress of financial scarcity markedly limited their cognition. When they measured the farmers post-harvest, after abundance had been restored, their disability disappeared.

The same results hold up closer to home. The same researchers stopped shoppers in a New Jersey mall and asked them to imagine a simple hypothetical that involved money. One story went something like this: “Your car is broken. Your insurance would cover most of the repair, but you’d need to kick in a $300 copay. Would you bite the bullet and order the repair or cross your fingers and keep driving?”

After the subjects answered, Mullainathan and Shafir administered a standard intelligence test. The results were surprising. When the dollar amount of the imaginary repair was low, the subjects’ own income levels did not really affect their performance. There were high and low performers among rich and poor alike. But when they jacked the hypothetical repair cost up to $3,000, cognitive ability dropped sharply across the board for poorer respondents. Simply imagining a scarcity condition exerted a tangible tax on their mental bandwidth. The price increase caused no such decline in subjects who could more easily afford the pricey repair.

The point of this research is that material poverty changes the way people think. Nobody argues that inattentiveness, unreliability, and other irresponsible behavior are not sometimes causes of poverty. But the evidence is mounting that the causality also runs in the other direction. We can all relate to feeling weak-willed and mentally useless after a late night and then a long day at work. Well, studies show that financial scarcity reduces willpower and slows cognition by roughly the same amount as pulling an all-nighter. Just as the financial and personal decisions facing an individual reach crisis levels, it becomes harder and harder to wrap one’s mind around them.

What does this mean for conservatives? We tend to prefer assistance programs that take a meritocratic, up-by-your-bootstraps approach. We want policies that ask beneficiaries to kick in their own time, energy, and commitment. But these studies suggest that financial scarcity makes it uniquely difficult for people to follow through and comply with such programs. For purely “pro-opportunity” policies to be successful, they might need to be paired with some straight-up redistribution. Government may need to buy the participants some breathing room in their daily lives for something like vocational training to be valuable.

In short, effectively expanding opportunity may require  the very thing we abhor: taking a few steps towards equalizing material outcomes. This doesn’t sit well for me either, but we are obliged to consider the evidence.

Poverty permanently changes children

The dilemma becomes even clearer if we bring children into the picture. Childhood is the literal starting line of life. Hence why conservatives are far more accepting of universal education and children’s health insurance programs than of cradle-to-grave benefits for all. But once again, new data suggest that these two approaches might not be as separable as we’d like.

A team of biologists and sociologists studied genetic samples from African-American boys raised in a variety of environments. Some of the boys’ upbringings were stressful and deprived; others were affluent and secure. The researchers looked at the length of each boy’s telomeres, the repeating sequences that mark the end of each chromosome. Telomeres gradually shorten as genes (and people) age.

Their analysis showed that the boys raised in impoverished environments had significantly shorter telomeres. Being raised poor literally damages a kid’s DNA. And other studies show that childhood exposure to socioeconomic stress can hamper cognition, even measured late in life. Being born to poor and perpetually stressed parents even appears to hold back children who were otherwise predisposed to be smart.

Again, this challenges our thinking. This evidence suggests that the kind of child-specific interventions that conservatives prefer may come too late. If we are serious about equalizing children’s positions at the starting line of life, we probably need to take action before the kid even gets to school. That might well entail some “finish line” equalizing to put more money in parents’ pockets. Helping children, it seems, runs straight through their parents’ bank accounts. That’s true whether or not we see those adults as deserving of assistance themselves.

Conservatives are called to these issues

This new evidence is not simply a beacon for more and bigger government. Analysis by a team of European sociologists demonstrates that being born during an economic boom is a statistically significant predictor of adult brainpower. Recession babies were systematically less likely to exhibit high mental performance later in life. These results control for other factors. This offers a powerful reminder that economic growth, not skillful social engineering, is the true solution to widespread deprivation—and thus to poverty’s effects on cognition and development.

But while we continue fighting for free enterprise, the question of the safety net remains. And on this count, it is undeniable that these studies give conservatives something to chew on. Opportunities and outcomes may be far more entangled than they might seem. For a “hand up” to be maximally effective, people may need an initial “handout” to relieve pressure from everyday life. If our goal is really to give every kid a fair spot at the starting line, this may require us to redistribute some money to grown-ups independent of their own merits.

There are no easy answers to these questions. Economics and human psychology are two incredibly complex areas, and antipoverty policy lies at the intersection of both. But they are questions conservatives must tackle. Most Americans know that free enterprise is the ultimate cure for poverty, but many still trust progressives more to supply short-term relief through social policy.

The modern left has squandered that trust for too long. It is time for conservatives to rip the torch from their grasp. That means seeking out and digesting data that challenges our thinking. You build credibility by marrying enduring principles with new insights, not by marching blindly down an old and worn-out road.

Follow Andrew Quinn on Twitter.