Tag Archives: safety net

Lessons We’re Having to Learn The Hard Way

The news just keeps getting progressively worse.

It’s pretty clear that in addition to a global pandemic, we will experience a global economic meltdown. As state governments have stepped up to compensate for the lack of federal leadership, restaurants and bars, gyms and cultural venues have been ordered to close; many will be unable to weather weeks with no income, and will never re-open.

As one of my friends recently noted in a post to Facebook, Coronavirus would have battered the U.S. to some extent no matter who was in the White House. But an even minimally-competent President “would have listened to the public health experts and taken action, realizing that this was about the country and NOT about him (or her) self.”

And most likely, no other president would have rejected the WHO’s offer of test kits, or dismantled the global health emergency task force that was set up to deal with a pandemic. And no other president would likely brazenly lie on a daily basis even as his own administration’s experts contradicted his lies and imbecilic pronouncements. In short, Trump deserves “credit” for the extent of this catastrophe, the long and outrageous delay in taking action, and the economic meltdown that will result, along with many of the (probably unnecessary) deaths that we will see.

So–lesson number one: elections matter. Competent government matters. The character and intelligence of our elected officials matters.

Lesson number two: we’re connected to the rest of the world. Discussion of a “global pandemic” and “global economy” should give “America First” xenophobes pause. (It won’t, but it should.) We really are ALL in this together. Today’s world is far too connected for the walls, travel bans and reflexive hatred of darker “others” that characterize the Trumpublicans’ approach to the rest of the world. Not only are those measures useless and stupid, especially during a pandemic, they inevitably hurt America more than they hurt those “others.” Global cooperation is absolutely essential, not just to the management of health threats, but to efforts to mitigate economic damage.

Lesson number three is another take on the fact that we truly are all in this together–and by “this” I don’t just mean this particular health crisis or this specific economic threat. We humans are– in far more than the biblical sense–our brothers (and sisters) keepers. A government that is not structured on recognition of that fact will be unable to mitigate disasters.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean abandonment of market economics, but it does mean provision of a far more robust and less haphazard social safety net.

In a recent analysis, the Brookings Institution acknowledged that reality.

In addition to the dire risk to individual health, side effects of the coronavirus pandemic are sure to include widespread economic hardship and uncertainty. If you experience these symptoms, you’re mostly on your own—as the virus reveals a grossly inadequate safety net and willfully ineffective political system that are poised to leave our most vulnerable workers bearing the brunt of the economic and social impact.

The self-quarantines and social distancing measures taken in response to COVID-19 are critical to keeping people safe by reducing exposure to the virus and slowing its spread. But we can already see the strains in our health care system that foreshadow even greater disruptions in the weeks and months to come. Similarly, we are witnessing the unavoidable side effects of social distancing: the reduced economic activity that ensues when masses of people stay home or avoid large gatherings. In turn, this translates into reduced demand for workers….

In the United States, 53 million people must get by on low wages, with median hourly earnings of $10.22. Some of the largest occupations employing these workers are also the most susceptible to the economic slowdown accompanying the virus’ spread: 5 million food service workers, 4.5 million retail clerks, and 2.5 million custodians and housekeepers. When college campuses empty out, when stadiums don’t host games, or when conferences are cancelled, it means that food servers, cooks, clerks, and housekeepers are out of work. And many low-wage workers and those in sales and service industries lack paid sick or vacation leave, which results in no earnings coming in at all.

The plutocrats who have been enriching themselves through public subsidies and tax cuts while disregarding the precarious state of low-wage workers are going to learn a very unpleasant lesson: when millions of people lose their ability to participate in the marketplace–when they no longer have the means to buy the widgets produced by the plutocrats’ factories or to shop for the services and products in which the wealthy have invested–  stock portfolios and tax havens won’t shelter them from that storm.

Ultimately, fortunate people are only secure when everyone is secure.

It Explains So Much…

Americans argue endlessly about the reasons for our inadequate social safety net–it’s the influence of the plutocrats, the demise of unions, globalization, capitalism, the two-party system, etc. And certainly, all of those things are contributors to our peculiarly American refusal to  expand government safety-net programs. But an opinion piece that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times identified the real “elephant in the room.”

The reason we don’t have such programs is racism.( It’s the same reason we have Trump.)

The author, one Eduardo Porter, sums up a good deal of social science research when he asserts that the reason Americans have repeatedly rejected expansions of the social safety net is because that expansion inevitably collides “with one of the most powerful forces shaping the American experience: uncompromising racism.”

Why does the United States suffer the highest poverty rate among wealthy nations? Why does it have the highest teen pregnancy rate? Why are so many Americans addled by opioids? We blame globalization and technology. But these forces affect everybody — the French and the Canadians and the Japanese as much as us.

The United States alone has crumpled because it showed no interest in building the safeguards erected in other advanced countries to protect those on the wrong side of these changes. Why? Because we couldn’t be moved to build a safety net that cut across our divisions of ethnicity and race.

Porter revisits the New Deal and later efforts by President Johnson to expand social programs, and reminds us that–along with the positive results we remember, like Social Security and Medicare–there were “compromises” that effectively prevented African-Americans from sharing the benefits of those programs.

In order to win support of Southern Democrats, Roosevelt ensured that major parts of the New Deal excluded nonwhites. The Federal Housing Administration, to take one New Deal creation, is celebrated for expanding homeownership, but it also refused to back loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, or for black people period.

New Deal labor codes allowed businesses to offer whites a first crack at jobs and authorized lower pay scales for blacks. In their first incarnation, Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded domestic and farm jobs, which employed two out of three black workers.

That Nixon was a racist and an anti-Semite isn’t news. Notes taken by H.R. Haldeman (who certainly looked like the prototypical Nazi) recorded Nixon saying “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” That was in 1969.

Reagan excoriated undeserving black “welfare queens.” Bill Clinton, who had promised to expand health care, instead ended “welfare as we know it.” He replaced AFDC with TANF, and funded TANF with block grants that allowed states to play games with the money and, as Porter notes, ” withhold aid as they saw fit.”

Other rich countries have continued to expand and improve health care, education and child care —Porter says that such services today amount to about 10 percentage points more of their G.D.P. than they did in the 1960s. Meanwhile, in the United States, that proportion has barely budged. What did grow was incarceration.

And thanks to Michelle Alexander, we know that mass incarceration disproportionately targeted African-Americans–it was the “New Jim Crow.”

Porter is not optimistic about our capacity for change.

While minorities might eventually reshape American politics into something more inclusive, until that happens politics will be determined by the efforts of freaked-out whites to resist this change. Republicans’ efforts to ensure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation, like state-level efforts to suppress the vote of people of color and gerrymander districts to dilute their electoral clout, are a clear expression of white fear.

Whether Mr. Sanders or Mr. Biden wins the nomination, the Democrats will spend the rest of the primary promoting an expansive vision for America’s safety net. As they do, they also need to admit that they are envisioning an America that has never existed.

Ask yourself why the United States, alone among the world’s richest nations, still doesn’t provide its citizens comprehensive, universal health care. Ponder why Obamacare is being so relentlessly whittled down by Republican governors, the courts and the Trump administration. Racial animosity is at the root of all this — and until America finally grapples with it, even the grandest plans will amount to nothing.

The Coronavirus pandemic may make it impossible to ignore the consequences of our “original sin.”

The reason I keep harping on voting “blue no matter who” is because over the past forty or so years, the two-party system has basically sorted into a racist and an anti-racist party.  There are undoubtedly still racist Democrats, and people of good will likely remain within the GOP– but given the Grand Old Party’s current base, good will is impotent.

Until we defeat America’s pervasive racism, it’s not just Medicare for all we won’t get–it’s an adequate social safety net.

 

That Social Safety Net

It may be time to re-conceptualize the social safety net.

Most of the people who refer to a social safety net use the term as shorthand for a variety of so-called “welfare” programs, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to TANF and other income-support measures. Defining the social safety net in that way—and focusing, as so many Republican political figures do, on support for needy Americans—facilitates criticisms of measures intended to help the poor.

After all, the comfortable ask, why should the prudent and solvent among us have our hard-earned monies taxed to support “those people”?

It’s easy to see the persistent attacks on income-supports for disadvantaged folks as both dishonest and mean-spirited, and most efforts to rebut them tend to revolve around the realities of social supports: the percentages of recipients who are children, elderly and/or disabled, the overwhelming numbers of impoverished Americans who work forty or more hours a week, etc.

We may be missing the forest for the trees.

A “social safety net,” properly conceived, is the web of institutions and services that benefit all members of a given society while building bonds of community and cross-cultural connection. In this broader understanding, the safety net includes public education, public parks, public transportation and other services and amenities available to and used by citizens of all backgrounds and income categories.

Public education is a prime example. Even granting the challenges—the disproportionate resources available to schools serving richer and poorer neighborhoods, the barriers to learning created by poverty—public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty. Public schools, as Benjamin Barber has written, are constitutive of a public.

Common schools create common cultures, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that attacks on public education have been at least partially motivated by that reality. While supporters of charter schools and voucher programs have promoted them as ways of allowing poor children to escape failing schools, the data suggests that most children—including poor children—are better served by schools that remain part of America’s real social safety net.

This point was recently underscored by Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education—a board not noted for progressive understandings of the role of education. After setting out the comparative data about costs and outcomes achieved by traditional public schools in Texas and those operating via various “privatization” programs, he concluded

When you hear the unending and unsubstantiated rhetoric about “failing public schools” from those that support vouchers or other “competitive” school models, it is important to have the facts. ISDs aren’t perfect, but they graduate more kids, keep more kids from dropping out and get more kids career and college ready than their politically connected competitors. Any claims to the contrary just simply are not supported by the facts and at the end of the day facts matter because these lives matter.

Recognition that “these lives matter” is the hallmark of a society with a capacious understanding of citizenship—both in the sense of who counts as a citizen, and what constitutes the mutual obligations of citizens to one another.

The actual social safety net is not limited to the (grudging and inadequate) financial assistance given to the most disadvantaged in our society. The true safety net consists of the many institutionalized avenues within which the citizens of a nation encounter each other as civic equals, and benefit from membership in a society built upon the recognition that all their lives matter.

Defining the social safety net that way allows us to see that the portion of our taxes used to assist needy fellow-citizens isn’t “forced charity.” It’s our membership dues.