Allan Powell: Is the welfare state on its way out?

November 02, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

The election of 2012 is fast approaching and will almost certainly send a message about the status of the welfare state in America. Is the dislike for government health plans and other social support programs so vocally disparaged by the Tea party and many Republicans in danger, or do they represent the voice of radical change? While it is historically true that we, as a culture, are dominated by an individualistic ethos, it is also true that a communitarian set of values has blunted its impact. Like it or not, we have some characteristics of a welfare state.

This has been defined as “a state in which the welfare of the people in such matters as Social Security, health and education, housing and working conditions is the responsibility of the government.” While these goals may appear to be desirable because the whole society would be the beneficiary of a healthy and educated population, there has always been a stout resistance in the United States to each welfare reform. The passage of Obamacare is no exception.

The advent of a very serious financial crisis in Europe has magnified the problems common to welfare states. We would be wise to learn what we can from other troubled economies. Economist Robert Samuelson, (The Washington Post, Dec. 5, 2011), in “The Welfare State in Crisis,” gives a partial picture of economic situations in Europe and a warning that we are equally troubled. He does not, however, include data on three of the most successful welfare states in Europe: Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Nonetheless, some data given will be useful in understanding the problems we face.

A comparison of government spending on social welfare between 1870 and 2007 (137 years) shows the dramatic increases. In 1870: United States, 7.3 percent; Great Britain, 9.4 percent; Germany, 10 percent; and 12.6 percent in France. In 2007, the spending had increased to 36.6 percent in the U.S., 44.6 percent in Great Britain, 43.9 percent in Germany and 52.6 percent in France. These advances in social welfare were made possible by the increases in national wealth. Other analysts suggest that other favorable economic and demographic facts made these welfare benefits sustainable.

The important condition required for continuous benefits was continuous national growth. In the 1950s, rich nations are reported to have experienced an average annual growth rate of 4.5 percent. However, from 1973 to 2000, growth rate declined to 2.1 percent and falling. The demographic figures show that the number of the aging population is steadily increasing — and with it an increase in health costs. Studies show that the 65 years and older population of the 27 European Union countries was 16 percent in 2010. The same age group in the United States came to 13 percent with the projection that by 2050 the number would reach 20 percent.

While all of these facts are worthy of consideration, it is also a fact that there will always be some kind of crisis that each society must take into account: war, natural catastrophes, famines, plagues, and dislocations brought on by new technology. All of the foregoing events could be used as an excuse to stall or stop health and other benefits. In the end, every budget ever drafted is as much a reflection of values as well as needs — real or fancied. It is a reflection of our values that we have a ratio of 14 to 1 between the incomes at the top and the bottom while in Sweden the ratio is 6 to 1.

At the moment, we have a movement that is getting a great deal of attention. This reactionary movement, called the Tea party, openly expresses absurdities that appear to have some acceptance. Still, it is well beyond rationality for a presidential candidate such as Ron Paul to assert that we should return to the “good old days” when health care was based on community voluntarism. He supposes that he should be praised for his lofty individualism — in reality, he should be charged for neglect.

America is a great nation, blessed with an abundance of natural resources and a most favorable geographic location. With wisdom, we can arrange our affairs to more equally share these blessings. There is no good reason to argue that we are in peril by sacrificing the well-being of the many to the opulence of a few.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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