Modern social welfare programs began under Bismarck’s conservative German government as a means of undercutting the growing socialist movement. If workers saw that the state would help alleviate poverty and provide needed services, then the workers would not support Marxism. Moreover, conservatives tend to view the state as a “organic entity,” a collective bound together as a community. That means that it is in the interest of the state to make sure that people aren’t suffering or being exploited.
Other reasons for social welfare programs include ending poverty and suffering as an end in and of itself. This was behind Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, most of which were actually implemented in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In Europe, the left and right reached the great compromise, whereby the left would accept market capitalism in exchange for the right accepting that the state guarantee health care, pensions and a safety net. This led to unprecedented peace and prosperity for Europe, settling past ideological battles between left and right.
However, as demographic change makes most of these systems unviable in the long run, and high debt forces reconsideration of how governments spend money, it is time to rethink the purpose behind social welfare spending.
Bismarck’s goal of stability remains. Societies that see vast gaps between the rich and poor tends towards either authoritarianism (as the rich want to protect their share) or revolt (as the poor get angry about class difference). The “great compromise” was a brilliant solution; putting that at risk would threaten the core stability of western civilization.
Goals of ending poverty or equalizing wealth are suspect, in part because they are too vaguely defined. You could end poverty by simply transfering wealth to the poor, but what good does that actually do for the people themselves? It gives them more money, and may help them feed their families, but the goal is at too high a level of analysis. We should focus on social welfare programs for the sake of the people who are on them.
In the industrialized world people are generally responsible for their success in life. It’s a lesson I try to teach my children and my students: don’t blame others for the world you create for yourself, take responsibility. You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can take action and make choices to change them. Whining about injustice only increases the total whine volume. Claim your life! It’s yours to make, if you’re in college you have every opportunity to succeed, take control! That is a liberating experience, it’s freeing oneself from being confined by the shackles of low expectations and low self-esteem.
But what happens when we just give money to people? I’m reminded of the scene in Syriana where the oil tycoon talks about the money he’s made and how it’ll “probably ruin my children.” When you look at the children of the very wealthy, they have as many if not more problems than others, despite the wealth. When young athletes or film stars suddenly get large amounts of money, it often creates more problems for them than solutions. Some can handle it, many can’t. The reason: money itself does not help a person understand to how to live life.
Many poor are stuck in a situation where they do not believe they can take control of their lives, they don’t see opportunities, they haven’t had the chance to handle the risks through which we build self-esteem. If you just give them money, there is a real danger they’ll become addicts. Not drug addicts, but rather addicted to ‘free money.’ That will feed into a sense of victimization and entitlement. Rather than taking control of their lives, they’ll lose control of their lives and teach those lessons to their children who will start out psychologically unprepared for the demands of the real world.
So I would restate the goal of social welfare programs as being one of liberation. I do not mean this in a Marxian sense of ending exploitation. Rather, a person should be able to develop the confidence to grab opportunities and take control of his or her life. It should liberate a person to rise out of their circumstances, to provide positive role models to their children and community, and ultimately create a sustainable growing economy in communities once suffering economic stagnation.
Unlike some on the right, who take the approach that “if you cut the money they’ll be forced to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I do not believe just ending social welfare programs can work, nor do I think private donations would adequately do the trick. So I reject the dichotomy that says “either you give away money to the poor or you don’t.” Rather, we have to figure out ways to design a system that creates opportunities, works with communities, and helps people empower themselves.
Education must be part of this (and I think access to affordable health care is necessary too). People don’t automatically have confidence and self-esteem. Self-esteem cannot be gained just by being praised — it comes from learning one has the capacity to overcome obstacles. In fact, I’d say you can’t really gain self-esteem unless you risk failure and even have to overcome failure. In that sense, education has to be combined with opportunity.
But this needs to be more than job training or even workfare. To really function and become sustainable, opportunity has to connect with community. In that sense one of the most important roles is that of a community organizer, someone who can come in and bring a community together around opportunities for growth. Receiving any social welfare help should be linked to participation in some kind of community venture.
As communities arise, they will provide the opportunities and feedback for people to build confidence, have higher self- and other-expectations, and develop real self-esteem. They will take pride in what they build, and ultimately that will lead to them taking control of their own individual lives and recognizing that they have the power to make choices that will make it much less likely they’ll need assistance. In a recession no one is immune from some hard times, but ultimately the key not only to cutting social welfare spending but also regaining economic momentum and growth is to have people in society making good choices and wanting to be productive.
Community and opportunity based social welfare programs could succeed where bureaucratic programs fail. A community organizer in the field working with people is far more likely to help than a welfare caseworker sitting in an office asking questions and making sure the proper forms are filled out. And given the economic and budgetary crunch, now is the time to reassess our approach.