The Death of Illusions

People are very invested in their stories of how things ought to be. Sometimes they become so wedded to those stories that they would rather see people suffer, than take an action that contradicts their personal worldview.

I remember years ago, when I lived in New York, there was a pilot program in which welfare recipients were given better supports. They were allowed to go to school, and still collect benefits. They had regular counseling to help them find, interview for, and keep jobs. After they found jobs, they were allowed to keep collecting benefits for a time, to help them with transition costs. They received regular monitoring in all aspects of their lives.

And it worked. The women in this pilot program got off welfare, found decent jobs, and stayed off welfare. While the up-front costs of the program were high, it ended up saving money over the long run, because it was so much more effective than traditional programs which only provided penalties, without incentives or help. So it was win-win, right? It worked and it saved money. But when the time came to expand the program, it was axed, because it was politically challenging to justify. In a world which wants black and white morality come election season, this investment in the poor could easily be twisted to appear like something else. So a program that worked could not get funding, while programs that don’t work — hello, abstinence-only education — can.

Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the death of our illusions is one of the hardest kinds of death. And so, even when our stories do not work, they cling to them anyways. We refuse to fund these types of programs because we’re “coddling the poor” or “rewarding indolence.” As the author of this New York Times article notes: “It’s an approach very much at odds with the American ethos of self-reliance.”

The solutions which work may not be the solutions we’re most comfortable with. At a certain point, our old moral filters only get in the way of real change. Certainty is a comfort, but it is also an illusion. As Dr. Pauline Chen says, “We have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon . . . our own humility.”

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