The Distribution of IQ And The Welfare State

No amount of encouragement or training can make people with low IQ perform better. So something or someone has to give.

Some weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with my dad. We don’t really talk much, but when we do, he usually shares some interesting nuggets of history or data that I tend to think about long after we’re done talking. So this is what I found so interesting the last time I talked with him (to paraphrase):

“The army figured out long ago that they can’t take in anyone with an IQ lower than 85. And they estimate that group to be about 10% of the American population. They found such people to be unable to take and follow orders, and that there wasn’t much that could be done for them. No amount of training or encouragement could help these people, so we need a social safety net for these people. We can’t just let them die.”

That is from someone who is more Republican than just about anyone I know. It’s a refreshingly honest assessment of humanity, a kind of tacit acknowledgment of the range of human capacity and skill. I was shocked to hear this from my dad, and I was quietly glad to hear it.

I had to verify this, so I did some research and sure enough, I found the Bell Curve of IQ distribution:

Image for post
Image for post
By Dmcq — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I know it’s a little small, but if you look closely, you’ll see that an average of all IQ tests shows that roughly 14% of the population has an IQ of 85 or less. That’s been a consistent pattern over many decades, so there’s no shaking them off. Those people who laugh at puns most of us would groan at, they’re with us. And they serve a purpose. But they may not be so able to help themselves.

The good news is that those with low IQs are in the minority. The bad news is that our IQ declines somewhat as we age. I know this from reading the headlines about young people scamming old people. I know this from personal experience watching old people decline. The brain is a delicate instrument and it’s biologically expensive to maintain. I suspect that once we’ve had our kids and they’ve flown away, the brain has to either get busy or wither.

While researching this article, I found a comparison of average IQ scores across all 50 states from Inc. Magazine. Here’s the top ten:

  1. Massachusetts 104.3
  2. New Hampshire 104.2
  3. North Dakota 103.8
  4. Vermont 103.8
  5. Minnesota 103.7
  6. Maine 103.4
  7. Montana 103.4
  8. Iowa 103.2
  9. Connecticut 103.1
  10. Wisconsin 102.9

And here’s the bottom 10:

  1. Tennessee 97.7
  2. Arkansas 97.5
  3. Arizona 97.4
  4. Nevada 96.5
  5. Alabama 95.7
  6. New Mexico 95.7
  7. Hawaii 95.6
  8. California 95.5
  9. Louisiana 95.3
  10. Mississippi 94.2

See a pattern? Red State? Blue State? The Northeast sorta wins the top ten, and they’re mostly Blue. But there is a bigger pattern. Temperature. The top 10 are cold and sometimes dry, and the bottom 10 are all hot and mostly humid states. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see California in the bottom 10. And I’m not that surprised to see Massachusetts perched on top.

The point here is not to say one state is better than the other. Or that the Red States are smarter than the Blue States. I am inclined to say that I’ve seen that less intelligent people can find happiness where smarter people may not. There is no hard and fast rule here, but there is definitely a pattern and that can be useful for public policy choices.

To put this in a political context, there has been a lot of discussions lately about the moral hazards of the welfare state, like Medicare For All. Should we have a welfare state or not? How big should it be? Who should it serve? I’m also thinking about this issue in light of the Trump Administration’s current drive to tighten eligibility requirements for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. What problems do they hope to solve? Have they considered the possibility there will always be some people that will require financial assistance just because they lack the capacity to do better?

To be fair, I’m all for personal autonomy. I want people to be able to avoid the moral hazard of depending on the state for their income. I avoid that dependence myself, but I’m not interested in making that decision for other people. The Trump Administration seems really interested in making that decision for others. Yet most of the discussion about the size and extent of the welfare state has been squarely centered on incentive and motivation. Very little of the discussion has been about capacity.

And when I say capacity, I mean, skills and capacity. I’m an optimist, so I like to think that if people have the capacity to do better, they would. Do I expect more of someone with an IQ of 120 than that of 85? Sure I do. But if a person with an IQ of 120 lacks the capacity to do better, then I look to skills more than mental horsepower.

I don’t worry about motivation. I believe that people are always motivated to do better. I believe that people want to go sleep at night knowing they did the right thing. And when they fail to do the right thing, I assume it’s from a lack of skills. And someone with an IQ of 85 may not have the capacity to acquire the skills necessary to get the job done. With me so far?

I think (for somewhat obvious reasons) the distribution of IQ has an inverse relationship to the distribution of wealth. Currently, the 3 richest people in the nation hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the nation. And those 3 people are considered to be very smart. I seriously doubt that result arises from a “free market”, or an equitable system of laws and regulations. but that inverse relationship suggests an interesting pair of questions: Are the smarter people farming money off of their lessers? Isn’t that a moral hazard?

So you have a gift that spans the chasm between both of your ears. You know you could make money with that gift. Do you use that gift to scam people? Or do you use it to create something of value and sell a bunch of those things for a profit?

When I look to the finance industry, I think of the former, the scammers. When I look to industry, Tesla, IBM, US Steel, etc, I think of the latter, the builders. It’s an interesting question that I think gifted people must consider every waking moment of their day.

But even then, that comes down to the skills they learned from their mentors and caregivers. Even very smart people can do very dumb things. One only needs to look at the financial crisis we endured in 2008. Most normal people didn’t spend those years leading up to the collapse planning to short the housing market. Yet a small cadre of very smart and wealthy people did just that. And they won. Whether they choose to create or destroy is a choice they alone made. Those people didn’t need a welfare state. They made their own safety net for themselves.

The rest of us may need some help one day.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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