10/09/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Is Welfare Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

It's political season. Campaign ads and canvassing will be bombarding us for the next month or so. A significant part of these platforms and debates congeals around the legitimacy of welfare expenditures. Most recently Democrats and Republicans disagree as to the work requirements necessary for welfare payments. In particular, they disagree upon changes to Clinton's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Romney and other Republicans want to make welfare payments contingent on substantially more employment, while they criticize the Democrats view of more freely giving out such payments.

Although both parties spend countless hours debating and researching the details of the welfare system, neither explicitly acknowledges the underlying disagreement that makes welfare so controversial. Democrats and Republicans use completely different standards by which to evaluate our welfare system. By not discussing the initial assumptions each party brings to the table, politicians and legislatures have confused each other and find it difficult to come to agreements on welfare reform.

The two parties simply disagree on the standard for evaluating welfare. Democrats hold the view that people use welfare for the right reasons and hence we should expand it. Republicans generally argue that welfare expenditures should be lowered because many people waste their payouts and become too reliant on the government. It is this core disagreement that must be made explicit and debated by politicians in order for there to be any chance of agreement on the structure of welfare.

We can think of the welfare standards in terms of criminal law. Democrats presume that recipients are "innocent." And hold a standard of "innocent until proven guilty." Republicans however, are more skeptical of recipients, and presume that each is "guilty."

Our criminal legal system's standard is "innocent until proven guilty." Hence the common phrase: better to let 10 guilty free than convict one innocent. Like our criminal legal system, Democrats are willing to let some guilty people use payments inappropriately (staying reliant on the government without any effort of searching for a job), in order to never take payments away from those who use payments appropriately (i.e., those who are innocent). Republicans hold the opposite view. They would prefer to take payments away from people using them well (i.e., innocent recipients) in order to make sure others (guilty recipients) do not squander hard-earned taxpayer money.

Different standards of course call for different policies and distinct sacrifices. Take the "innocent until proven guilty" standard in criminal law. Because we presume innocence, we tend to limit the types of things that prosecutors may introduce at a trial. The theory being that allowing some types of evidence could sway a jury to see guilt when it might not exist. Evidence of past crimes is usually not allowed. And evidence of being a bad person and other character traits is almost never allowed. Furthermore, by presuming innocence, we risk setting some guilty people free because our standard of proof is so high. The legal standard here is designed to minimize the number of innocent people we convict (a statistical Type 1 error). However, by attempting to minimize the Type 1 error, we invariably will increase our Type 2 error (setting guilty people free).

The Democrats' "innocence" standard similarly calls for a relaxation of welfare requirements so as to make it more available and easier to obtain for more U.S. citizens. However, this will increase the Type 2 error -- several people will likely receive payments that intend to use them inappropriately. The Republicans' "guilty" standard calls for a tightening of requirements, in particular more work requirements in order to obtain welfare. However, this will increase the Type 1 error -- several people won't receive payments that intend to actually use them appropriately.

Invariably the presidential candidates will debate the future of welfare expenditures. But the debaters will be treading water and going nowhere. Until we explicitly make clear what our true standards of evaluating welfare are, our debates of specifics will generally amount to nothing. Neither candidate will vocalize their underlying assumptions of welfare, because neither is willing to admit to the presumptions that he holds. It is however, those exact presumptions that are at the heart of our debates not the specifics of how to structure welfare payments.

Suneal Bedi is a graduate of Harvard Law School.