WASHINGTON – The standard argument in favor of the welfare state and its multiple entitlement programs is that modern, relatively affluent societies have a moral obligation to help their disadvantaged citizens.
Help the needy
The poor, the elderly, single mothers supporting sometimes many children struggle to survive. Quite often they fall further behind, and so they get into a negative spiral that leads them from poverty into despair.
Benign policy-makers cannot ignore this plight. Hence the idea to come up with various support programs. This is the “social safety net” that will prevent the weak from falling into the abyss of the perennially destitute.
Benefits for ever
Fair enough. However, while theoretically these programs are supposed to help people to “get back on their feet”, in practice it is not so. In practice, temporary assistance has a way to become permanent, while little is done to enable recipients to become once again (or for the first time) self-sufficient.
Moreover, once we have accepted as a society that there are some deserving categories of individuals who must be helped, we have also created an almost irresistible drive to augment the ranks of the deserving, while increasing, little by little, the range of subsidies, free services and more they are entitled to receive.
And this explains the huge financial burden created over time by large and growing social programs. In political terms, the “fiscally responsible” argue that all this public largesse is unaffordable. Therefore the ranks of the “entitled” have to reduced, while restrictions have to be enacted regarding how much can be given out and for how long.
Let the rich pay
The socially minded “progressives” argue that one can find the money to pay for all this by increasing taxation on the (undeserving) rich, many of whom gained their extraordinary fortunes by gaming the system.
Within most western democracies the political divide is indeed on these issue: “How much social spending is necessary, and how much can we afford”.
Welfare breeds apathy
But this is not the whole story. Empirical evidence shows that societies that devote a huge amount of resources to social programs tend to be affected by economic stagnation. Little innovation, no dynamism, no real growth. Many welfare state critics argue that there is a clear cause and effect relationship between spending a lot on entitlements and feeble growth.
Dependence is the issue
But allow me to look at the issue from a different angle. The real problem with entitlement programs is not that they cost too much. The real problem pointed out by many but difficult to express in political language is that they cause unhealthy dependence.
In other words, individuals who get progressively used to get enough to survive through public assistance programs lose the drive to look after themselves. They have little incentive to look for better jobs. Likewise, they have no motivation to learn new skills that would help them move up in the labor market.
Dependence: this is the insidious, unintended consequence of public assistance not tied to a commitment to self-improvement.
Self-sufficiency is the goal
Broadly speaking, modern psychology argues that a self-sufficient individual is also a more balanced person. It is now recognized that facing challenges is good for you, assuming that they are not in the shape of overwhelming calamities. Which is to say that reasonably competent, mature individuals can rise to the challenge of looking for a new job. Dealing with cancer, or with the consequences of a devastating hurricane is another matter.
So, where do we go with all this? If we accept the above, then we should agree that all public assistance to the needy has to be geared to make the needy self-sufficient within a reasonable period of time.
From assistance to independence
The emphasis should be not in giving enough money so that the person or family will not fall into destitution. The emphasis should be in devising “customized strategies” that will lead the recipients to increasing their chances of self-improvement. Learning new skills, getting more education, receiving training in marketable skills increases the chances of getting a job, or a better job.
If we accepted this approach, welfare programs would be redesigned so that they are no longer a life raft. They will become a ladder to self-sufficiency. In so doing, in the long term we achieve positive goals. We progressively reduce the cost of entitlement programs; and at the same time we increase the ranks of productive, self-confident citizens who are better positioned to be economically independent, while contributing to society.
Resistance to change
As you can imagine, the large, established constituencies of “the perpetually needy”, all the bureaucracies created to attend to their needs and their political patrons will resist reform, claiming that any proposed change is really a thinly disguised effort to cut benefits, this way condemning so many of our fellow citizens to be destitute outcasts.
A difficult task
Indeed, even with sufficient political support, this is going to be very difficult. Teaching people to find motivation from within, at the same time accepting that in life one has to learn how to face challenges is difficult.
Teaching these life skills to adults who never had the opportunity to learn any of this at a younger age is even more daunting. And yet this is the only way to overcome this dependence on costly welfare that condemns millions to be for ever semi-marginalized.