Monday, October 7, 2013

A liberal vision for welfare


In response to my Ethical Musings post on taxes, welfare, and government, I received the following comment:

Can I ask what ideas you have for encouraging self-reliance while still being compassionate? I work at Wal-Mart. I know lots of people who take welfare as a right and make no effort to leave it; they'll even give lessons on how to do it. I also know some that get a job for 2 weeks and once they get their first paycheck quit. It's not worth it. They live just as well on welfare and child support and don't work at all.

When I talk to liberals though, any suggestion to require volunteering, more stringent requirements, even turning in obvious fraud, it is met with accusations that I want them all to starve. There are a lot of Tea Partiers here-and they aren't rich; they're working poor who see their neighbor living just like them doing nothing, so of course they want benefits cut. That's also why they don't like Obamacare- they'll be forced into Medicaid, forced to become part of the problem. It's a blow to their struggling dignity. Why try to earn their own way? The gov't has decided belong with the leaches and dead weight.

What would a liberal's vision for compassion and responsibility be?

The commenter poses a great question. What is a liberal's vision for compassion and responsibility? Compassion connotes caring for others. Responsibility connotes our relatedness, characterized by a healthy mutual interdependence that acknowledges concurrent responsibility for self and others. The vision, like life itself, must be dynamic. At least five principles, all rooted in a Christian worldview, will constructively shape the dynamic.

First, let’s begin with the bad news. No system is or ever will be perfect, i.e., sin and brokenness are real. Some people will find a way to cheat, defraud, exploit, or otherwise abuse any system. Attempting to establish a system immune to all fraud, waste, and abuse is costly, non-productive, and futile. Analogously, the only way that Wal-Mart (or any retailer) can prevent all theft is to close shop. A small percentage of both customers and employees will inevitably seek to steal. Both business and government do best when they seek to limit losses in a cost-effective manner. Spending a dollar to prevent someone from stealing a dime is bad business and bad government.

Second, let’s put the bad news in context. Most people are honest, i.e., Calvin was wrong about the total depravity of persons and Anglicans are correct that sin skews without completely destroying the imago dei. Federal and state income taxes, for example, largely depend upon voluntary compliance. Similarly, businesses increasingly rely on self-service checkouts, e.g., at supermarkets. Collectively, we reinforce honesty by expecting honesty to be the norm, praising people for being honest, reporting dishonest people, promoting a culture that frowns on dishonesty, etc. In the context of welfare, a nation minimizes abuse by promoting a culture in which people turn to welfare only as a last resort, and then hopefully as a temporary aid to returning to self-reliant independence.

Third, I have little patience with people who can’t see both sides of an argument or for whom issues are painted in blacks and whites. In fact, there are many shades of gray and we often do not know the best policy solutions. If we knew the best policies, I like to think that both the private and public sectors would have adopted them long ago. The Apostle Paul aptly described our situation as seeing through a glass darkly.

Fourth, a culture of entitlement is emerging, a culture that is unhealthy for both society and the people who share that attitude. For example, about one in seven Americans now receives food aid; in 2012, thirty thousand Michigan college students received food aid, many of them from middle class families.

Many of the people on welfare genuinely need help. Some accept aid reluctantly, vowing to become independent as quickly as they can. Other recipients accept aid because it is available; indeed, the system rewards managers for increasing enrollment. When successive generations of families spend their entire lives on welfare, the welfare system, the entitlement culture, or both are badly broken. Now is the time to deal with this problem, while the entitlement culture remains a minority.

People who see no hope for a better life, and this can include the growing number of working poor whose real incomes and net worth have fallen for the last three decades, have little incentive to work harder and to take more responsibility for themselves and their families. (For some statistics, cf. Donna Brazile, "Food stamp cuts a cruel proposal," CNN, September 23, 2013)

Liberals who refuse to admit the failures of the social safety net condemn us to living with existing abuses and holes, reducing the probability of improvements and making the growth of an entitlement culture more inevitable. Conversely, tea party conservatives who don’t recognize the inescapable interdependence that links people, and the concomitant need for social programs and a safety net, condemn themselves and their loved ones to a cold world that will show no mercy in their times of need.

Fifth, I look for pragmatic answers. What programs work? Can we replicate those successes? What programs fail? What alternative appears most promising? (One advantage, incidentally, of the federal system is that each state can adopt its own laws and programs, something centralized control and funding has unfortunately eroded in recent decades.) How can we constructively disrupt the culture of entitlement?

Pain or fear can motivate; those emotions can also immobilize. Hope and success are even more potent motivators. How do we shape programs to take advantage of human motivators, minimize bureaucracy, ensure an adequate minimum standard of living, and establish effective controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse? Encouragingly, I find a growing number of people are centrists, some approaching the middle from the left and others from the right, united by commitment to those objectives, interested in searching for new answers, committed to both a society that cares for all and that encourages self-reliance.

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