Safety net continues to shrink for those who need it most

Published in The News Tribune, March 2, 2012

The Obama Administration’s recently-proposed budget continues what has become a troubling trend in federal policy.  And it isn’t the growing debt I’m referring to.

What is is the large number of citizens who we seem to have given up on.  In fact, so forsaken are they, and dire the consequences to us of this abandonment, that I’ll use my next two columns to pick up where this one leaves off.

The trend is this:  We’re supplying our most vulnerable and low-skill citizens with fewer and fewer public dollars.  Instead, our nation’s “safety net” increasingly targets the rest of us, particularly those with jobs and a working- or middle-class income.  I’m all for helping the gainfully employed – especially those with low income — but when public dollars are scarce, the marginalized are the least capable of competing for them because few advocate on their behalf.  Not surprisingly, they’re losing out in the competition for public dollars.  

The evidence for this should stun us.  A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details the changing distribution of federal social spending, reporting that the richest 20 percent of Americans collect more in social benefits than do the bottom 20 percent.  But that’s not the worst of it.  On a per-capita basis, the group that by far receives the most in government largesse is the top 1 percent.

Maybe Occupy Wall Streeters should adjust their aim from New York City to Washington D.C.

This astonishing fact can be attributed to two trends, both of which Obama’s budget advances rather than reverses.   For one, traditional forms of federal social spending — welfare benefits and “entitlements” (such as Medicare and Social Security) — are increasingly given to Americans who may be struggling but aren’t truly desperate.  In 1980 over half of all federal transfers went to the bottom fifth of the income distribution, whereas today only a third does.

A changing priority in where federal dollars go is partly due to the aging of Americans, as the elderly among us both claim a lion’s share of public benefits and are (to boot) on average relatively well off.

But there’s more to this trend than aging.  Another factor is that our “welfare” policies – social spending targeting low-income citizens – increasingly reflect a belief that those at the very bottom of our society are, perhaps like drunks, there because of poor personal choices.  Not only do we believe that the poor are by-and-large undeserving of public support, but helping them contributes to the persistence of their problems – possibly as when you give a dollar to that alcoholic begging for “gas money.”

Mitt Romney clearly caters to this belief, recently writing that welfare creates “the long-term jobless, dependent on government benefits for survival… and foster[s] sloth.”

This common conviction also helps explain why government benefits have been shifting from the desperate to the rest of us – presumably those of us not at the bottom are less prone to sloth.

A second trend explains why federal benefits single out the better off among us, and that is the ever-growing use of our tax system to advance our social policy objectives (home ownership, retirement income, quality child-care, and health care coverage, to name but a few) that by its nature almost always benefits the well-healed as opposed to the needy – those without healthcare or affordable quality child care, or who are unable to set aside dollars for their retirement.

Romney has framed the upcoming election as one offering a choice between our “Entitlement Society” where government pampers and rewards the unproductive, and an “Opportunity Society” where government steps aside so businesses can flourish.

But Romney’s characterization of us living in such an “Entitlement Society” and his vision of what an “Opportunity Society” would require both miss the mark. A true “Opportunity Society” would require us to refocus our “Entitlement Society” on those who lack opportunity – exactly what we’re not doing.  Not only is this a fair way to treat those with the poorest of prospects, but it’s also in our own interest.  I’ll pick up on both of these points in subsequent columns.