Can we have serious discussions about the incentives that public policy creates? We have to, but I wonder if we can.
That was my thought upon reading a Newport Daily News article by Derek Gomes about a Portsmouth woman who’s caught up in the state’s UHIP debacle. On that score, in particular, there can be no disagreement: If the state has set up a program and told people that they’re eligible, it must do its job. But still… the details make one wonder about the underlying policy:
The divorced mother of four said her children are covered by their father’s insurance plan, but she does not know whether her health insurance is in effect.
Watson owns an Etsy shop that sells vintage clothes she acquires from browsing thrift shops and clothes sales across the region. Eligible for Medicaid, she filled out her application in August and was approved.
The article doesn’t provide additional details about the marriage or divorce, and the specifics of this person aren’t relevant enough for us to dig into for our purposes, here, but on its surface, it’s worth noting some realities. Primary among them is that, had the family remained a team within marriage, Watson would be covered by the family’s health insurance. In this case, it is the woman who’s left out of the mix, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. The point is that two parents working together benefit each other.
To the extent that specific knowledge of her Medicaid eligibility contributed to the divorce (or just a general sense that government would have her “Life of Julia” back), public policy contributed to the outcome, removing incentive to work out problems within the marriage. The same is true of Watson’s nominal occupation. “Owning an Etsy shop,” unless I’m missing something, isn’t quite entrepreneurship. The site‘s tag line, “Turn your passion into a business,” gives the impression of a slightly more-formalized form of selling things on eBay. Some folks may make a living at it, but a competent financial advisor or life coach should probably encourage people to treat it as a hobby or, at best, a source of some additional spending money, maybe a means of paying down debt.
We’re deliberately not intent on determining the personal particulars of this one family, but it’s certainly possible that our state and nation’s “safety net” created space not just for the divorce, but also for the sense that an Etsy shop is sufficient occupation for the time being. Perhaps knowledge that an Etsy shop would be enough also contributed to the divorce. This critique could apply no matter whose behavior initiated the split, because the husband (in this case) might have assuaged his sense of responsibility knowing that taxpayers would pick up his slack.
This state of affairs benefits nobody, and particularly harms the children. Again, we’ll put aside this particular family, and we’ll acknowledge that diligent parents (and involved grandparents and others) can mitigate some of the worst effects of divorce. Nonetheless, in general, children do better in households in which their biological parents are married.
Maybe we should pause for some reconsideration if we’re setting up a welfare system that, when it’s working, serves as the de facto health insurance program for Etsy hobbyists who find themselves cut off from the benefits of their (relatively large) families because adults couldn’t find a way to maintain the most stable, healthy family structure. This is the opposite of the incentives that government policy should be creating.