MSNBC’s Witt and Guest Draw Far-Left Conclusions From Study on Poverty

MSNBC took advantage of a golden opportunity to advocate its left-wing agenda on Sunday’s Weekends with Alex Witt. The host brought on Derek Thompson of The Atlantic to discuss the piece he wrote about a recent study on the cognitive effects of poverty. In a nutshell, the study found that being poor can actually lead to bad decision-making.

Naturally, Witt took this study as a chance to tout the welfare state and take a swipe at lawmakers who want to slow its growth. She asked Thompson:



"So what does this study underscore about the importance of food stamps and all those other safety net programs designed to help the poorest Americans, especially now that these programs have suffered all the further spending cuts by Congress?"
 

First of all, it’s important to remember that the food stamp “cut” that took effect this month is simply an expiration of the temporary boost in food stamp spending that was mandated by President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. All previous food stamp “cuts” were merely reductions in the rate of spending growth.

Second, the authors of this study, published in Science in August, did not draw any conclusions about food stamps or the social safety net. Their conclusions and policy recommendations were somewhat narrowly focused. They suggested that policymakers should reduce “cognitive taxes” on the poor, such as preparing for a lengthy interview, filling out long forms, or deciphering new rules. They also made some recommendations that were specific to farmers. (One of their experiments involved Indian sugar cane farmers.) Witt brought up food stamps of her own accord.

Thompson went farther than Witt, using the study to push for income as a universal entitlement. He proclaimed:
 

"[W]hat this study suggests is that if not having money is making people worse decision-makers, perhaps we should have a policy that essentially gives them money simply for existing. There's a name for this sort of policy. It's a minimum basic income."
 

Again, the authors of the study did not advocate such a radical policy. But the idea of giving people money simply for existing is probably Thompson’s pipe dream, so he ran with it. Suffice it to say, Witt did not call him out for his cynical attempt to cloak his political views as simply good science.

Near the end of the interview, Thompson enthusiastically lobbied for the socialist-tinged plan once again:
 

"I certainly hope that if more people start writing about this, that it could popularize ideas like a minimum basic income, which I think is a totally humane way to think about income inequality today."
 

This is the type of far-left advocacy that MSNBC is showcasing these days.

Below is a transcript of the interview:


ALEX WITT: A new examination on the effects of poverty exposes some of the devastating effects being poor can have on a person's psyche. Senior editor of The Atlantic Derek Thompson wrote an interesting piece about the study published in Science titled "Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions" And Derek joins me now. I’m glad to have you here. Interesting article. According to recent Census data, one in six Americans lives in poverty. And that's close to 43 million people if you put out the math there. Does this science study show that it's being poor that leads to bad decision-making and not the other way around?

DEREK THOMPSON: Exactly. So some of us are familiar with this concept of decision fatigue. It’s the idea that if you have to make a lot of decisions sequentially, that your brain gets tired. It imposes a kind of psychological tax. Some of us might feel this actually this Black Friday. This study suggests that there might be something else that we could call “poverty fatigue.” Simply not having money enacts its own psychological tax and makes it more difficult to make decisions about finances, about school, about life itself.

WITT: So what does this study underscore about the importance of food stamps and all those other safety net programs designed to help the poorest Americans, especially now that these programs have suffered all the further spending cuts by Congress?



THOMPSON: There are a lot of policies in the U.S. where we tie cash rewards to certain sort of behavior. We say, if you work, you are eligible for these kind of tax credits. A lot of welfare itself runs through the tax code, which means it's predicated in a certain way on working. But in fact, what this study suggests is that if not having money is making people worse decision makers, perhaps we should have a policy that essentially gives them money simply for existing. There's a name for this sort of policy. It's a minimum basic income. Switzerland is experimenting with it right now. There are a lot of liberal researchers who think that it's worth experimenting with the idea here in the U.S. The idea simply that you give people money simply for existing, hoping that them having money will help them make better decisions for their life and their kids.

WITT: And the author of this study is quoted in your piece saying, “All the data shows it isn't about poor people, it's about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it’s not the person, it's the context they're inhabiting.” So just explain that right there.

THOMPSON: Sure. I think it's easy when you have, you know, researchers who are in Ivory towers or in think tanks. They’re looking at poor people making, you know, bad decisions with finances or bad decisions with having children or getting married. And they're thinking, you know, why are poor people making what appear to be obviously bad decisions? And what this study is suggesting is that it's not the poor people, it's the concept of being poor, not having money imposes its own tax. They found out -- they said at one point that it's the equivalent of having 13 fewer IQ points. So if we're interested in figuring out the origins of bad decision making within poverty, we shouldn't be looking at the people, we should be looking at the circumstances, at the poverty itself.

WITT: Did you get an idea that this study could change policy?

THOMPSON: You know, I am not extremely optimistic about policymaking in the United States these days, but I certainly hope that if more people start writing about this, that it could popularize ideas like a minimum basic income, which I think is a totally humane way to think about income inequality today.

WITT: All right, well, senior editor of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson. Thanks so much.
 

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.