“U.S. social policy is built on a foundation of values,” AEI’s Michael Strain writes at Bloomberg.com in getting to the heart of why reforming most government programs creates such heated debate.  Most discussion of work requirements, eligibility, and the costs and benefits of social programs begs the questions of personal and societal responsibility:  Are the programs intended to benefit children or adults?  Are they intended as insurance, as a means-tested benefit as long as a need exists, or as a support to help a person establish a livelihood through work?  What even counts as work for someone receiving assistance?

It’s one thing to encourage work. It’s something quite different to tell a hungry person you won’t give him food, or a sick person you won’t give him medical care. But if work requirements are going to have teeth, then that will be necessary. Sending away a hungry person may be reasonable if you think he has the capacity to work. This requires adequate opportunity to use that capacity.

Public policy can remove barriers to opportunity by reducing the power of occupational licensing boards or providing certificates of relief for people with a criminal background. When it comes to weighing the capacity someone has for work or stepping in to help with mental or physical health problems, government workers are not often in a position to build relationships that can be the catalyst for life changes. Add in the deep moral and philosophical differences about the role of government aid, and it becomes clear why assistance was, until roughly a century ago, not a national or often even statewide policy concern. Different service organizations establish different norms for giving and receiving aid, but government assistance sets a single bar for every taxpayer and every recipient without consideration of the different circumstances around the specific question of food or medical care or housing. Part of the reason civic debate has turned less civil is that we are using prices to debate questions of value.