There is an experiment psychologists run called the “dictator game.”

Two people face off against each other and one of them is given $100. He is told that he can share as much or as little as he wants with the other player, and the other player has to accept it. Even though he doesn’t have to, the first player usually shares something, but not much.

In the second version of the experiment, called the “ultimatum game,” the first player picks an amount to share and the second player has a choice: Accept what is offered or reject it, knowing that if he says “no,” neither player will get anything.

Rational self-interest would tell the second player to take whatever is offered, that even $1 is better than nothing. But that’s not the way it plays out.

In his book “The Price of Inequality,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said people will go against their own self-interest if they think they are being treated unfairly.

Most people accept that the first player is in a powerful position and can demand a larger share, but cheapskates generally get punished with almost all offers of less than $20 rejected.

So even when it comes to cold hard cash, emotions matter. Stiglitz was writing about the demoralizing effect that income inequality has on the rest of the workforce, but he could have been writing about the “welfare reform” debate that is playing out in Maine.

Gov. LePage and most Republicans have put struggling middle-class Mainers in the position of a second player who feels he has been offered a bad deal. They are working while it looks like others are taking it easy, living a comfortable life on public assistance.

LePage has focused on things like EBT fraud, aid for immigrants and separating the undeserving poor from the “truly needy,” even though there’s not much money to be saved nibbling around the edges of programs. This is not about money, they will tell you – it’s about unfairness.

The latest example was the governor’s announcement that he would not apply for an extension of the recession-era food stamp rule and would require that unemployed people look for work or volunteer while they are getting assistance.

Not much to argue with there: Jobs are the best social program, and anybody who can work is going to be happier and healthier with a job than without one.

As long as there are enough of the right kind of jobs, there is nothing wrong with asking people to look for them.

But where this argument breaks down is the idea that poverty is caused by a lack of motivation that can be fixed by cutting benefits.

In a recent Press Herald column, Steve Robinson of The Maine Wire wrote that making poverty less comfortable would help people more in the long run than feeding them.

“The poor among us are rational actors operating within this system of incentives. And this system, though designed with good intentions, has the perverse tendency to incentivize the wrong kind of behavior.”

But the “dictator game” shows that we are not always rational.

First, food stamps have a maximum benefit of $4.50 a day, or $1.50 per meal. This is hardly a life of luxury and not much incentive to take it easy.

And if policymakers were acting rationally, we would increase programs like food stamps, not cut them.

Children who don’t have enough to eat do poorly in school. Workers who are malnourished don’t do as good a job. People who are constantly worried about how they are going to get through the day are probably not going to have the bandwidth necessary to make good long-term choices.

If the goal is to make people self-sufficient, we should make sure they have enough to eat and the tools they need to find rewarding work.

If the goal is to make poverty uncomfortable, relax: It already is.

Middle-class and working-class voters are right: The system is unfair, and they are suffering while others have it easy. But it’s not the poor who are getting the free ride.

While the effects of the recession are still being felt by people whose home is their biggest investment, those with most of their wealth in stocks have recovered and then some. The financial sector has made the biggest rebound, even though it caused the collapse.

Over the last 30 years, we have seen massive redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the rich. It is not a fair deal, and eventually the second player will say “no.”

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at [email protected]

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