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Based on communities with multi-generational welfarism, I'd suggest that idleness comes with pretty serious social problems. Employment imposes minimum pro-social requirements on the employee.

Growing up near a major U.S. city with a very high percentage of multi-generational welfare recipients. The rampant idleness is one of the visible signs that actually makes me feel really upset. Driving to meetings and seeing a couple dozen very healthy guys in the middle of any given workday hanging around and harassing people because they're bored or, drinking themselves into a stupor just to kill another day where they do nothing and nothing happens, is a very serious problem. The parts of town where this happens are inevitably high crime, run down and dangerous.

None of these people have to work as all of their basic needs are met. Any extra money they come across (usually by panhandling) doesn't get reported and is almost always used for either bullshit like "bling", drugs/booze or gambling.

Very few have more than a cursory education and most dropped out of school as soon as they could stop getting truancy officers to stop sending them back. There's simply no reason to learn anything. Interacting with these folks is difficult even on basic conversational levels.

There's an old saying, "the devil makes use of idle hands" and it has a lot of wisdom in it on many levels.

I'm a very big proponent of large government work programs. Every one of these guys who I see every day would be better off earning their way by fixing up infrastructure in the U.S. or doing migrant farm work or something marginally productive for society. But instead they drag down entire sections of cities into such a state that even driving through their areas is a test of patience and risking your own safety.

It's important to note that the "couple dozen very healthy guys in the middle of any given workday" that you are seeing are almost certainly not receiving welfare in the form of cash payments - (cash payments are generally how welfare is defined in the US). Since the 1996 welfare reform act, people who receive welfare benefits (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) need to be either working or in a job training program or they will lose benefits after a maximum of two years.

Welfare reform addresses the problem that you describe, but the work requirements also create other social problems. For instance, single mothers who might previously have been able to stay home with young children now need to work long hours at low-wage jobs.

It's also important to realize that there are other factors besides the welfare trap that keep otherwise healthy men unemployed. As you pointed out, one is a lack of education that may only qualify them for low-skilled jobs. Also consider that if you've been to prison it's incredibly difficult to get a job at all.

Also remember that when you're driving through these neighborhoods you're not seeing the people who are working.

When discussing how the unemployed "drag down entire sections of cities", you should consider the causative arrow. Are these neighborhoods in trouble because of unemployment and idleness or do the chronically unemployed happen to congregate in these neighborhoods? Consider the effects of decades of disinvestment in minority neighborhoods and of white flight. Banks spent decades refusing to provide mortgages and small business loans in minority neighborhoods ("redlining"). Desegregation busing and the movement of minorities into traditionally-white working and middle class neighborhoods often triggered wholesale abandonment of the inner cities by these white families. When middle class white families abandoned the public school systems after desegregation policies were implemented, many inner city school systems ended up as warehouses for the poorest, least prepared students, greatly degrading the systems' capabilities to provide an education. Similarly, when middle class white families moved out of inner city neighborhoods these neighborhoods decayed.

Systemic poverty and unemployment are complex problems with many causes and cannot be blamed entirely on some culture of idleness.

I just finished reading _Life at the Bottom_ by Theodore Dalrymple. He's a medical doctor in England who works with the lower class (mainly those on the dole). Overall, those on the dole have little incentive to improve their lot in life yet have a large sense of entitlement. And those very few that strive to improve themselves are punished for it (not by being thrown in jail or losing their benefits outright, but mainly through inattention or indifference by the government).

And this is England, you know, land of free education and health care.

England has fee-paying (higher) education and is moving towards privatisation of the NHS. North of the border is where you find the "free" (i.e. tuition paid by the scottish government) tuition and healthcare.

By the English taxpayer. Carrying Scotland (the Barnett Formula) is why England is having to scrimp and save.

I grew up pretty poor, at one stage my family was homeless for a few months -- I've eaten out of food pantries and soup kitchens and grew up knowing where all the major food manufacturers had day-old surplus stores, I've exhausted lots of electrons on that story here on HN. I have unbelievable levels of sympathy for the working poor and for making sure that food and housing are affordable and that work is available to anybody who needs it and that it's decent honest work with proper benefits, child care and all that.

I want to make an important note that I'm consciously not attributing any specific race or ethnic group to this issue as over the years I've seen the same thing cuts across all of those kinds of barriers. I've seen just as many idle groups of white men just the same as black. I'm also specifically not talking about people with very severe mental health or physical issues that prevent them from working. I don't think we as a society do enough to help these people live stable, reasonable lives and I think we do a disservice grouping them in with able-bodied people simply based on income metrics. I'm specifically talking about otherwise healthy able-bodied people only.

Despite being poor (or perhaps we were poor due to), my parents owned a small business that I grew up with. Because of the nature of the business, employee pay was generally not great, and was staffed at first by refugees and then later almost entirely by ex-cons - most of whom had past issues with homelessness, drug addiction and the like.

I grew up in that kind of environment and knew hundreds of these guys over the years and saw exactly how they became successful and what choices they made that caused them to fail and go back to being homeless or in prison.

Millions of man hours have been spent looking at "this problem" insisting that it's complex, and difficult and such and such. It all boils down to the question "how do you motivate people who aren't working, to get to work in an economy where plenty jobs are available?"

I think "the problem" that everybody's tried to solve is the wrong problem to solve. I think we've made it very complicated because we're uncomfortable with the harsh reality. Most of these same idle people would do unbelievable amounts of work if it meant the alternative was starving to death. But it's impolite and immoral and makes us very uncomfortable having people starving to death so we assure them some kind of food access and then kill endless supplies of ink and electrons figuring out how to get them productive once this is solved. The simple fact is people aren't motivated to work once their bellies are full and with all that spare time on their hands they'll find something, probably not socially beneficial, to fill it with.

So I'm going to say something that's very unpopular and is going to upset loads of people here who've never had to face these issues directly:

The idleness and urban blight is just a common symptom of what I think is fairly simple problem that's been solved successfully in the last few decades by gentrification of urban cores. More than welfare reform, or other grand social experiments, cleaning up broken parts of town has done more to solve these problems then just about anything else.

Inside of cities, blighted areas are cleaned up, policed and developed. Concentrations of idle hands have no choice but to get out and dilute.

Not a single person my parents ever hired lived in a concentrated urban center, they all lived outside of those areas. Far enough away that the broken self-organized support systems that keep groups of young, otherwise healthy men, milling about together doing nothing much are inconvenient to get to. The concentrations of able-bodies supporting each other is "the problem". Dilution where they are 1 in a group of tens of thousands of productive people and away from their broken support system provides them with motivation to work...or go hungry.

There were two outcomes 100% of the time.

1) These guys would enjoy the improved standard of living that good wages and a good job provided (increasing every year with seniority) and they'd knuckle down and work their tails off. Often outgrowing the level of work my parent's business could provide and eventually moving on to senior positions with bigger companies. A few of them starting their own businesses. My parents get many very moving Christmas cards every year.

2) They'd get troubled by the lack of the kind of support system they remembered, because working through life on your own is hard. And they'd "go back to the city to visit my cousin" one weekend and end up fired a few weeks later for coming to work high, or drunk or they'd simply stop coming to work at all and we'd find out that they'd moved back to the urban core or got themselves arrested in a PCP induced assault or some such. Making it on their own was a stress they couldn't handle and the psychological crutch they received from being in their comfort zone was preferable for them even if it wasn't as comfortable.

Gentrification removes #2 as an option as that comfortable support system is shattered and spread all over creation.

The culture of poverty is very real and it's paradoxically very self-reinforcing. I've also spilled lots of electrons on HN discussing what it's like to be poor, and the vicious cycle that's much easier to stay trapped in than to get out of. But it's not theory for me, I got out of being poor, and I watched dozens of other people who worked for my parents escape it as well and watched dozens more fail to escape it. There are surprising support systems that exist and can only really be felt and understood when you are poor.

But the nature of these systems is not to support somebody up and out, they work more like a fragile and very sticky web, they need each person to continue to contribute to that support system, the same one which ultimately traps them there. Breaking the web is a forcing function that forces people to tap into the normal, upwardly moving parts of the economy and society and it's the only thing I've ever seen that has any kind of success rate at all.

What you're describing here is a problem of culture and a problem of incentives. You're defaulting to a pretty extreme solution - isolate from their culture and threaten with starvation. It seems likely that there could be more humane solutions if only it were politically palatable to address the underlying issues.

I actually believe that not all cultures are equally valid. There really are dysfunctional ways that humans congregate.

Your lack of support system theory would also explain why immigrates are usually more hard working and successful. They have no one to depend on so they have work hard or go hungry/deported. Lots of motivation there.

Same for people who leave small towns to go strike big on a big city.

This post is interesting on multiple levels. I'm an upper middle class white male, who has been a homeless drug addict living on welfare. Things are rarely as simple as you make it out to be, though yes there are systemic problems that the current thinking doesn't seem to address nor fix. The thing is, the people you are talking about may have different priorities and choices in life to yourself.. Is that inherently a bad thing? I don't think so, and so I attempt to avoid generalising when it comes to this. A huge "work for the dole" plan rarely has the outcome that you'd logically assume it would. These are differences on a sub culture level. It's a huge topic and one that sociologists actively study because of that.

I disagree to some point. I think it's a very simple problem that we've made very complex; work or starve to death.

This makes us, a modern civilized, post-enlightenment civilization very queasy, but people will do unbelievable amounts of very terrible work to make sure they have a full belly and mediocre shelter from the elements.

> the people you are talking about may have different priorities and choices in life to yourself.. Is that inherently a bad thing? I don't think so, and so I attempt to avoid generalising when it comes to this.

I agree, but not all prioritizations are beneficial ones. They don't have to be mine, but I do wish that everybody's personal prioritizations led them to be at lest economically self-sufficient if not beneficial for society.

I think you nailed it on the head though. I have some very dear friends from when I grew up poor that are still poor...and the reason for it is inevitably the life choices they've made that have kept them in that state -- because they've prioritized and made important things that don't help them get out of it.

(kudos on getting out of the bad state you were in, I'd love to know more of your story)

Well it's still pretty complicated, because there's no option to go out and hunt for a living. You can't earn food without participating in society, which is a very complicated system of rules that few of us have any influence over (but a small minority have large influence over). Changing those rules to make them more in line with the idea "work or starve" would not be simple. (What about tax? Farming subsidies? What if someone gets a monopoly on the cheapest staple food in an area? What about genetically modified crop patents?)

Also, if it became common to motivate people through starvation, life would quickly become quite terrible. (Just look at the things that used to happen during the industrial revolution. Dangerous child labour, terrible working conditions, lives and limbs sacrificed in the name of progress.)

I'm glad we have idle people who don't want to work, because that way the guys in charge have to make sure that working is at least better than not working. In the not too distant future there won't be jobs for unremarkable people, and I don't really want them to starve.

Funny, based on your first sentence, we actually agree! It is a simple problem, made complex by what we've "Built" around it... I just wish I had a good answer to it all :(

I'm writing a book on my life at the moment, my email is in my profile if you'd like some more info :)

What is going to happen when "one of these guys" refuses to sign up for your large government work program? Is the government going to enslave them in order to keep them from being idle? Is this going to be voluntary?

Think about Fuller's quote - we have people making tools for inspectors to inspect people. What do you suppose is going to be the overhead for your massive make-work program? And what is going to be the environmental cost of this program? Who absorbs the externalities as the government tears up the environment in the name of employment? In other words, quis custodiet custodies?

> What is going to happen when "one of these guys" refuses to sign up for your large government work program? Is the government going to enslave them in order to keep them from being idle? Is this going to be voluntary?

To answer your question with a harsh bit of reality. I frankly don't care what happens to them.

Work or starve to death (I know: this is an impolite notion in modern society). Most people will figure this out and turn the choice into work or go to prison for a minor offense and get three square meals for a while. But that's a different problem. The vast majority will (and has in the past) took to the work instead. And there's a virtually unlimited supply in simply maintaining the existing infrastructure without building anything new at all.

Given a choice of my tax dollars feeding, housing and clothing idle healthy hands, or putting those hands to use, I'd gladly pay more tax dollars for a nicer civilization to live in.

Such a system seems so open to abuse. Render people unemployed and then force them to work jobs that you no longer recruit for.

if he refuses to work, he will stop getting money/benefits from the state. If he commits crimes to get money, he will be put in jail. After third crime he will get life sentence and he will not inconvinience society any more. Putting people in jail is expensive but I think society can afford it. Not much different from what we have know.

Busywork can be totally environmenrally friendly. For example, manually sorting recycle and compost comes to mind.

What if he refuses to work because he has a totally valid reason to do so, which was not contemplated by the "all-knowing" State?

I see that all the time with unemployment benefits, particularly now that they're increasing the amount of busywork necessary to receive them.

"Oh, taking care of your neighbors' daughter while they work is not a valid reason in form A45-3, so you're cut off unless you come to some useless training course"

Taking care of their neighbors' daughter is not a valid reason not to work. That person had a choice, and made the wrong decision. Just like the person who's daughter it actually is made the choice to go to work instead of stay and watch their daughter.

You'll find a great many of the "valid" reasons for not working usually come down to very basic life choices of work or do something that's not work.

That being said, I think the state needs to provide basic work support services like childcare, medical care, birth control education and workplace regulation around sick days, parental leave etc. so most of those failed choices go away.

That raises a few questions. One is that such line of reasoning is inherently authoritarian. What makes you more competent to make that decision over the other person? If it's based on democratic consensus, should we be vote on a Official List of Allowed Activities? To drive the point home, how much do you want to bet that you'd be allowed to be a "coder" in a time when the average person had never seen a computer? Hell, forget coder: what kind of job is "startup founder"? Most of them fail anyway! I say you get a real job.

Secondly, is the trust in the bureaucratic machine. Anyone who spent at least a few years in East Berlin before the unification can probably tell you a few good stories about that. Like the postmaster who delivered a few tons of copper during the post office renovations, who then had "delivering tons of copper" assigned as a mandatory job goal for the next three years, until he sorted it out.

Related reading: http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html

There's an unlimited supply of very necessary busywork in infrastructure maintenance that's not currently happening right now at both the U.S. Federal and State level. Nothing new needs to be built, just bridges painted, roads resurfaced, water systems cleaned out etc.

There will always be people without ambition, without dreams, without a wish to do more, be more. In our current society these are precisely the under-employed people that you describe. Everyone with a bit of self-motivation is off at the office earning a living.

Have you ever tried taking a really long vacation? Really long as in 6 months or more? Once you get to the end of the first few months, you start getting bored. You start looking for things to do, and as you don't have loads of money to spend (after all you're not working) you're looking for something not too expensive.

One of the great things about today's society is that doing something creative is actually quite cheap - you could take up patchwork quilting for the price of a $100 sewing machine and some material. You could take up drawing for the price of some paper and paints, or an iPad. Your could take up music for about $100 to by a cheap instrument and some sheet music. Or cooking (accepting that you're already going to have to spend money for food to live, cooking is a very cheap hobby), or writing a book, or making a video game, or pretty much every single Y-Combinator start-up ever... because you know what, pg's view that you don't need a lot of money for a start-up these days is also true for doing things that aren't aimed at making money.

Over the last 10 years of my career, I've built some really cool technology that I have been quite proud of. I have done this as a salaried employee working for various companies. Not one of the products on which I have worked on for those 10 years has made it to market. I've learned a lot personally, and it's quite agreeable work, but I don't get as much out of it as I would if I was working on a product of my own choosing. Yet society somehow finds a way to pay me a 6-figure salary for doing effectively nothing. If I'm not going to do anything useful for society, it would be far more rational to work on nothing useful that at least interests me, no?

How do you know it isn't the idleness that is the problem, but instead the environment that they have grown up with? Stressed and overworked parents with low incomes that don't foster curiosity and pursuit of beneficial hobbies, etc. These issues are pretty complex.

Of course it's not the idleness per se that's the problem, and what's left? Nature/nurture, so I think you're right. For example, if I were to enter "idleness" I don't think I'd be buying "bling" nor beat on people. For me idleness is awesome, it makes me creative.

I completely agree. One might even argue that idleness would also give well-meaning people the free time necessary to work on effort-intensive community projects that might help mitigate the problems the comment above mine was concerned about in the first place! But humans are tricky creatures, and I can see how it might turn out poorly. I think community interaction, events, and promotion of constructive activities (opt-in and minimal government interference, of course, we still want to maintain freedom of ideas) would be a very important part of any pro-idleness society.

Idleness is the symptom. You're absolutely correct that their environment is the problem. Shatter than environment and make it unavailable (I wrote about this at length elsewhere in this thread) and the symptom will go away.

I think these social problem comes from idleness without opportunity. Also they are placed low in society in terms of possessions so feel an underclass. If these people cant afford to follow their interests or even travel across town because they don't have bus fare yes it's going to create problems.

But what if all people have a similar base and while being on welfare have a reasonable level of disposable income to pursue hobbies? I don't know the answer but I suspect there would be a big outlook difference of US welfare recipients vs. Kuwait where welfare recipients have disposable income.

Further it's easy to say there will be people causing social issues. This will always exist to a degree. We have to consider if this would be relatively better or worse for society, not just would there be problems.

> I don't know the answer but I suspect there would be a big outlook difference of US welfare recipients vs. Kuwait where welfare recipients have disposable income.

I'm not familiar with the Kuwaiti experience, could you elaborate?

> We have to consider if this would be relatively better or worse for society, not just would there be problems.

Agreed; though I'm wary of making big, breaking changes to a complex, evolved system. Previous attempts to cut over to radically different socioeconomic architectures in production have tended to end poorly.

I'm not familiar with the Kuwaiti experience, could you elaborate?

Kuwait has enough oil money to give their people free health care, free education, housing subsidies, and food subsidies. On top of that, they have guaranteed employment so ~96% of their citizens work for the state. Oh, and there's no income tax.


You seem to have no idea how little to no money welfare actually provides to the poor in this country. People with your type of thinking have won the political debate over the last 30 years but things are not improving and people like you keep making the same uninformed arguments.

I don't want to disagree with you, but I suspect there's more to this than just idle time. For example, there are plenty of retirement communities where idle time is the norm, and the social problems of poor urban American neighborhoods aren't really found there.

Good counterexample; though those in retirement homes are generally not from multi-generational welfare backgrounds. I'm not sure if I'm undermining my own argument here.

I'm simply spouting my random opinion here, but my guess is that the communities you point to suffer from non-ideal cultural-behavioral traditions that are passed down and ingrained into each new generation. If one is raised in a family/community where money is always an issue/stress point, parents are overworked, alcohol and shallow-content media are the main forms of entertainment, little encouragement for hobbies is provided, etc, then the odds are stacked against pursuing what many people might consider an intellectually-engaging or constructive lifestyle.

There might be other levers that can be used to encourage pro-social behavior than the current one, of chaining those not on welfare to the struggle for their existence. In my own view, financial autonomy is a basic right. We should seek out other, more dignified ways to discourage people from hanging out on street corners harassing people.

What did you have in mind?

I'm not sure. Perhaps people who are ticketed for anti-social behavior or who are picked up by the criminal justice system would need to do community service or face a gradual escalation of penalties -- not be able to own a credit card, hold a driver's license, etc.

I don't see how there is any relationship at all between current implementations of welfare and a putative work-free society given that welfare is associated with low social position and limited access to resources for self betterment.

So you consider it to be a cultural artefact?

What about antisocial behaviour by those who've inherited high status?

I think that is absolutely cultural too. I have lived in both environments. High status people or those born to riches are by no means universally antisocially behaved.

I don't disagree that such people exist. Nor do I disagree that multigenerational, anti-social welfare recipients exist.

Both groups exist I cultures where superficial media success and the acquisition of money are held up as the meaning of life.

For the welfare recipients, this kind of meaning is perceived as impossibly out of reach, and so people are resentful and adopt a 'take what you can from the system' mentality.

For some of the high status people, meaning is also unattainable since they already have what other people seem to value, so society doesn't value their actual contribution.

In cultures where the 'rich' have a sense of responsibility, there is much less of the bad behavior you describe.

You mean spoilt kids behaving badly? You can be given material needs without having to work but you will still need to work hard to become a dancer, ride a skateboard, play the piano etc. Maybe the root problem leading to antisocial behaviour isn't financial but a lack of cultural values?

Assuming you're referring to the US (which you may not be), how is this "multi-generational welfarism" viable when benefits are restricted to a five-year lifetime cap after 1996? In addition, there is a work requirement while receiving welfare (welfare-to-work).

Food stamps do not have such a limitation, but would hardly be able to support the long term lifestyle you describe.

I'm Australian. My understanding is that the effects of the Clinton reforms are somewhat disputed. I don't like the idea of time-limiting welfare based on arbitrary cap. It's a case of "fixing" the metric, not the problem.

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