The People Don't Know What They Want: Social Support

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Social Support

The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors  and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
 
 
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and  refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
 
 
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
 
 
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
 
 
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
 
 
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
 
 
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.

Generous Leadership

We tend to select leaders who see the world in a positive sum. We like leaders who can look ahead and project a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. We want leaders with empowering visions of the future and shared prosperity for all. We don’t want greedy leaders who are cunning, ruthless, and don’t care to share their bounty with the rest of us.

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson tie ideas of generosity and charity to leadership. Being charitable, giving away of lot of money, and investing a lot of time into something, shows that a person is willing to put others first, is willing to sacrifice something of their own for the good of society, and genuinely cares about other people and not just themselves. The authors write,

“This helps explain why generosity is so important for those who aspire to leadership. No one want leaders who play zero-sum, competitive games with the rest of society. If their wins are our losses, why should we support them? Instead we want leaders with a pro-social orientation, people who will look out for us because we’re all in it together.” 

Leadership is challenging because people don’t want to follow someone who is acting in their own self-interest. For all of us, it is a challenge to get beyond our own desires and to think about what is needed beyond our immediate concerns. To be a leader requires thinking beyond ourselves and having other people in mind when we decide what we are going to do, how we will use our resources, and generally how we will orientate our lives. We can’t be a leader if we are setting out to just be more than or better than others. People will see through us and our leadership will never take off.

Return on Donation

An argument that Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson present in their book The Elephant in the Brain is that when we donate to charity, we are signaling to others how caring and generous we are as humans. The actual good that our donation will do is secondary to being the kind of person who is caring enough and generous enough to help out with what ever cause we donate toward. It is not, the authors argue, the suffering of other people or creatures that we are concerned about, it is whether or not we think of ourselves and are seen by others as the kind of person who cares about it.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “Occasionally, we’re even happy to donate without knowing the most basic facts about a charity, like what its purpose is or how donations will be spent. “Within two weeks of Princess Diana’s death in 1997,” writes Geoffrey Miller, “British people had donated over 1 billion pounds to the Princess of Wales charity, long before the newly established charity had any idea what the donations would be used for, or what its administrative overheads would be.” When we analyze donation as an economic activity, it soon becomes clear how little we seem to care about the impact of our donations. Whatever we’re doing, we aren’t trying to maximize ROD [return on donation].”

 

If we were very concerned about making sure that we made a difference in the world with any money we donate, then we would take steps to ensure that our donation was going to make a difference. We would want to see a spreadsheet showing how the foundation used our money. We would want to know how many people were helped and in what way. We would want to know how much money went to the salaries of the employees of the charity, what money was spent on office furniture, and how much money was simply used as fixed office costs that didn’t benefit the cause we wanted to support.

 

Instead, the charities we donate to very rarely present any information along these lines. Our donations and charity are something we feel in our hearts, not something we think about in a rational way. Effective Altruists have argued that if you want to actually make a difference you can feel good about, if you actually want to show that you are a caring person, you should make an effort to understand how much good your donation is doing. We act as if that is why we donate, but then we don’t do any of the things (most of the time) that would support the argument that we care. A much more simple explanation of our donations is that we want to look good and feel good internally about our generous and charitable behavior, even when our generosity and charity is effectively wasted on organizations that are ineffective.