What if?

Imagine you were asked to re-design the welfare system in the U.S. What would it look like? Here are a few things you might consider, but I encourage you to think about this one on your own (who knows, it might come in handy some day, even soon…).

Address causes of poverty and inequality

  • Structural barriers to equal opportunity-often by race, ethnicity, gender. If you ascribe to the human capital argument, you should at least be able to refute the arguments that structural barriers perpetuate poverty and inequality.
  • Addressing the needs of the truly disadvantaged (remember the arguments of Wilson’s urban underclass, Gans and who benefits from poverty, Seccombe’s book and the women she interviewed and the many hurdles they face merely to get by)
    • Disadvantageous socioeconomic structures-education, living wage, health insurance (is universal insurance too expensive?), housing (subsidies, more supply of affordable housing), transportation. What sorts of factors work against (that is, need to be addressed) achieving these?
    • Big processes-globalization, increasing inequality in the U.S. and world. Are individuals responsible when large shifts in the economy replace higher-paying manufacturing jobs with lower-paying service jobs (so there are plenty of people to serve the consumers buying more plastic and electronic stuff made by low-wage labor in developing countries)? Can we explain differences in socioeconomic status in terms of individual personality traits?? What do you say, Kim?
    • Social versus private costs and benefits–even with health care, NOT providing it for some increases the costs to all of us. There is a cost to not taking care of the poor and needy, and its borne by the public quite often
    • Educational Equity–Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter on the KIPP open enrollment school programs suggests a novel approach. David Shipler discusses the need for more vocational-type training to develop job skills among those not likely to be, or not wanting to be, college-bound. Gladwell’s description of KIPP suggests that a big part of the gap between students in lower vs upper income groups is what happens when school isn’t in session–the lower income groups fall behind in the summer. The choice to attend a KIPP school is life-changing, and the commitment is intense, but the results suggest that the educational gap between rich and poor can be closed, and that it’s not just about throwing money at the problem (although KIPP has its critics, too).
    • ‘Skill and will’–according to David Shipler, there is the pressing need to help people develop more human capital, more job skills. But there is also the need for some will power, for motivation on the part of the individual, and that this is no small facet of a job training program–raising people’s self-esteem, raising their expectations, their standards, giving them a more optimistic range of possibilities, and more leverage and confidence navigating the job market.

De-stigmatize welfare (address cultural barriers)

  • Mutual respect–hopefully self-explanatory by this point in the term
  • Raise awareness of the structural reasons for poverty and inequality–poverty is not explicable in terms of individuals–unless we want to believe that there are at any given time in the U.S. 45-50 million individuals with flawed character, and that this number doesn’t change much, even though some find their way out of poverty and others fall in.
  • Offer support to all types of families–the two-parent heterosexual household is a fine tradition, but it represents only one of a myriad of household types, and children can be raised happy and healthy in all of these households, given the proper support, encouragement, and opportunities
  • Reframe the debate on welfare-how do we define it? what are our national priorities? Supporting people, or corporations and political processes?
  • Democracy-is it in jeopardy? Does welfare policy reflect the will of the people? Who do politicians answer to? Does low-wage employment reflect democratic values?

Bottom-up design (political processes)

  • Would incorporate the experiences of people who have to use welfare-rather than theory held dearly by upper middle class politicians
  • re-framing the debate in political terms-away from ‘deserving/undeserving’ dichotomies-
  • If capitalism “requires” a certain level of unemployment, then should the unemployed be compensated fairly for their contribution to keeping the system going?
  • wealth redistribution-it’s not about socialism, it’s about kleptocracy, oligarchy, rising rates of inequality-that is, the redistribution is towards the wealthy, not the poor (think corporate welfare, tax cuts)
  • U.S. does less for its poor than any other industrialized nation
  • Voting–Shipler makes the simple point that if the lower income classes voted at the same rates as upper-income classes, another 7 million would be added to the rolls. This doesn’t address whether they would vote their self-interests, but as Shipler says, no group needs government more than the poor.

Flexibility, diversity

  • welfare is not just a public issue–there are non-profits, private groups, informal support networks, faith-based, non faith-based, etc.
  • Bureaucratic approaches serve a function, but what is that function? Can they address causes (or at least, do they)?

Community, neighborhood-based-local in character (with moral and fiscal support of feds)

  • Do we want a bureaucracy providing services, or a community more likely to care? Can we have some of both?
  • Diversity by region, ethnic/racial make-up, local economy, etc. Does one welfare program fit all social situations?
  • Social capital–building networks of assistance locally, involving local people in that process
  • The common good–versus a competitive marketplace, inequality as a driving force–what are the social costs of a system where we ‘need’ undereducated people and ‘unskilled’ workers to perform the ‘dirty work?’
  • Fairness–isn’t this what the American dream was all about?