On Conditionality

At the end of the debate on Motion 30 on April 21, 2021, MLA Hannah Bell spoke about “conditionality”:

Finally, we also know that one of the main things that came out of the special committee in poverty that did such great work here on a basic income, one of the most important principles that committee identified that I think we need to take to heart when we talk about how we provide services and programs to people who are living in poverty is this notion of conditionality, that we have to have conditions about how you are eligible and why you get support.

Conditionality is where bureaucracy loves to live. Conditionality is where the rules happen that prevent people from being able to get the services they need and conditionality is where somebody, somewhere, gets to decide who is and is not eligible. The core of a program that is based in security and dignity does not have conditions; it has support.

If you want to see a pure expression of conditionality-gone-mad, consult the Cohabitation Policy of PEI’s Social Assistance program: what this policy attempts to do, in the name of verifying “family living arrangements for the purpose of determining eligibility,” is to attempt to describe conditions where government should consider two people effectively “married” so that “couples living together shall not receive a financial advantage over married persons by denying the existence of such a relationship.”

This includes conditions such as “The couple attends church or benevolent organizations and their related functions as a family unit,” ”The couple is listed as husband and wife (Mr. and Mrs.) on voters’ lists, assessment rolls, etc.” and “Vacation as a couple.”

This is an instance of conditionality entirely of government’s own making: it has built a structure based on certain legacy assumptions about individuals and families, and then built an additional policy on top of that in the name of “verifying compliance” with the very fictional world view it’s created.

This is not a hallmark of a “program that is based in security and dignity,” it is, rather, condescending, onerous to maintain, and needlessly adversarial.


Chuck McKinnon's picture
Chuck McKinnon on May 1, 2021 - 22:00 Permalink

This is a lovely sentiment, but it becomes impractical at scale. There are just too many people who will take advantage of a system with no constraints on what people can receive and which imposes no requirement to contribute. Eventually, such a system collapses under its own weight.

I often think that committed libertarians and committed socialists share a blind spot in this regard: because they understand the stakes, and because the value of pro-social behaviour is so obvious to them, they see others by the light of their own ethics: "I would never abuse such a system, so surely most others wouldn't either." But most people aren't that altruistic. There exists a sufficient number of selfish individuals who are perfectly happy to take the cheque all while complaining bitterly and ungratefully about the inadequacy of the help they receive from others' pockets.

Families and churches -- communities that fit within Dunbar's number -- seem to be able to manage this kind of help, but it's never proven workable at scale. Human beings are not perfectible, hence our societies aren't either. I wish it were otherwise.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on May 2, 2021 - 18:19 Permalink

I disagree with the premise. It assumes that people who receive or may receive social assistance are less entitled to it than people who receive other assistance from other programs and that people will always game the system in large numbers. I do see evidence of abuse but I also see evidence of people making wholly honorable choices independent of the "system". People game it because that system is almost asking them to. Maybe the program should say 'this program is intended for this purpose and not to replace this activity"? These kinds of statements seem to assume that "poor people" are more dishonest than others. Programs are over-designed to weed out all possible misuses and that is a misuse of administration. I would much rather one dishonest person receive something they are not entitled to than exclude others just for the sake of program purity.

Oliver FS's picture
Oliver FS on May 5, 2021 - 05:23 Permalink

At least sometimes, you can test a program in one locale or on a lottery basis, measure the proportion waste/abuse you see, and adjust the scheme as needed until you’re ready to scale. It’s not inevitably all or nothing and the die is cast.

Oliver FS's picture
Oliver FS on May 5, 2021 - 17:05 Permalink

If those criteria are unhelpful for identifying real cohabitation, then as I understand you, it seems that reliance on them mainly would cause too many people judged eligible. In that case, even if they illustrate a misguided sensibility, I don’t see them as illustrate very well a conditioning of benefit. I guess in a sense they are conditioning assistance on pointless paperwork and a wait while they process it. But to the extent the paperwork and delay doesn’t in itself discriminate (eg being unavailable in some languages, requiring you to visit a building with no wheelchair ramp, etc), the assistance is not conditional on anything significant. It’s just not as quick and easy as it could and maybe should be

Oliver FS's picture
Oliver FS on May 5, 2021 - 20:34 Permalink

I guess besides the accessibility of the process needing to be made universal, it’s worth saying also awareness and understanding need to be made universal—because I guess it’s after you add up all that needs to be equal, that requiring application processing (to achieve something of relatively little value) can be called conditioning aid.

Oliver FS's picture
Oliver FS on May 5, 2021 - 20:43 Permalink

Brings to mind the argument in the US on “restrictions to voting”—which is effectively conditioning the right to vote.