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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Distinguishing Entitlements from the Safety Net

Congress has lost sight of the fundamental purpose of a safety net, extending it beyond the difference between life and death. By zeroing in on the purpose of a safety net, Congress can both save money and better provide for the survival of those who are not providing it for themselves. Of such people, where survival itself is at stake, questions of being deserving pale in comparison to society’s obligation to fend off starvation, sickness and homelessness. Ironically, by extending the safety net beyond survival, Congress has undercut its role in providing for its citizens’ survival.

According to the New York Times in February 2012, the “government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, . . . declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007,” according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published in 2011. Making the secondary mission primary undercuts the primary mission by putting it at risk.

Objections to the secondary mission as unnecessary can spill over as criticism of the primary mission as if it too were not necessary. “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.” A wealthy retired person drawing social security insurance ought to feel guilty; the insurance program is not a savings account. Criticism of this category mistake can impact politically the funding of social security for those who need it. For example, even as wealthy retirees draw on social security, the social security disability program is work-based, meaning that a minimum number of quarters of work are necessary even for one to apply for benefits. Making a safety net dependent on a work history cuts off the long-term ill from the safety net. Moreover, the requirement implies that a person who has a disability does not deserve to survive independently of work. For a safety-net program to be dependent on anything means that the program is not part of the safety net, as safety nets are by definition not conditional. Yet where a society so values work as a source of a person’s value (e.g., “I am a plummer”), a program can easily be assumed to be part of the safety net without actually being part of it.

Related to the political cost of criticism of superfluous programs (i.e., beyond survival) is the refusal to fund true safety-net programs sufficiently. Congress has “expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.” One “benefit” of tax cuts is that they “starve” entitlements, which are all grouped together and presumed to be unnecessary rather than serving a true safety-net function.

The result of the prejudice and related starvation is that over the next 25 years from 2012, “as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.” In other words, safety-net programs are fair game on the chopping block without respect to whether people die without them or are merely inconvenienced. The failure to distinguish between these two is dangerous to the abject poor. Were the distinction made, corporate welfare and even middle-class welfare could be cut by more, I submit, than the additional funds needed to provide the least well-off with sustenance. In other words, we as a society can have a solid survival-oriented (and limited) safety net that is not conditional while actually saving money as benefits are narrowed to people who really need them.

The key is focus in place of upward drift. As just one example, money saved from a means test for social security retirement insurance could be spent in expanding social security disability such that its benefits are not conditional on the long-term ill somehow having worked thirty or forty quarters in the last ten years. How exactly is a retarded adult supposed to find and hold a job for that many quarters?  Making the benefits unconditional with respect to work history is crucial, as the social security supplemental income program is insufficient to meet sustenance needs. It is unconscionable to expect the long-term disabled to have worked in order to receive enough to live on while the middle class receives entitlements classified as “safety net.” The key to making survival a human right is recognizing the need both to expand programs at that level and severely restrict programs aimed at higher levels. Whereas middle- and high-income beneficiaries of government largess can justifiably be blamed, it is sheer cruelty to blame those who are not able to meet even their own basic needs from work for receiving subsidies.

In my rather ignorant, presumptous hometown, an unemployment rate of around 20% went with the recession of 1980 as the machine tool industry went to Europe. The city had the highest unemployment rate in the state in the post-September 2008 recession, and yet the first vote the re-elected U.S. House representative made in 2010 was to cut off unemployment compensation. His claim was that people should get off the dole and work for a living. It was apparently beside the point that there were no jobs; the unemployed were supposed to have them anyway. This is like telling people that the empty space on a table is to be imagined as spaghetti and then getting mad at them for not eating it—as if they should be expected to eat air. Such warped, illogical thinking as the Congressman evinced in 2010 in the rustbelt of America can be linked to reducing a true safety net to a society of entitlements. To hold the poorest of the poor to such warped thinking is utterly cruel as well as ignorant. I hope American society has not come to such a selfish and short-sighted end. The society is only as good as we treat the least among us, for such treatment reveals our true colors.

Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” The New York Times, February 12, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/us/even-critics-of-safety-net-increasingly-depend-on-it.html