Progress made, but fights over the size of the welfare state to continue

by: Chris Bowers

Tue Mar 23, 2010 at 21:00


After the health insurance reform bill was singed into law today, Matthew Yglesias optimistically declared that "progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done."

I agree that this bill is a step forward for social safety net.  It greatly expanded, and likely solidified, both Medicaid and the Community Health Center system as untouchable parts of the welfare state.  It also bolsters the long-term trend of public social investment spending (a broader category than just the welfare state) increasing as a share of GDP:

Social investment spending as a percentage of GDP, by category, 1970-2010

Those numbers do not include public spending on defense, criminal justice, debt payments, or general government administration.  Further, the overall numbers will not drop below 30% after the stimulus and TARP programs are over, and as the unemployment rate continues to decline.  It is likely that, as a nation, we will never go back to below 30%.

However, despite these gains, it is premature to declare progressive fights to expand the social safety net over.  As just one glaring example, in most states, people aged 27-64, and with an income over 133% of the poverty level, are not eligible to for public health insurance.  Without even mentioning ongoing disparities in other areas of the social safety net, such as education funding, the lack of access to public health insurance is a pretty big doughnut hole to fill.

Additionally, there will also be an ongoing effort by Republicans, and many Democrats, to shrink the size of the welfare state we already have. The widespread backing for Social Security and Medicare "cat food" commissions within both parties is a strong sign up this.

Taking the long view, the fights against shrinking the social safety net, and the fights to expand it by closing the doughnut holes in those nets, will closely coincide.  In particular, allowing everyone to purchase Medicare can become a means of putting the program on solid financial foot over the long-term.  As such, expect struggles over whether to expand, or reduce, the size of Medicare to become the main framework for the next decade of debates over the size of the social safety net.

Chris Bowers :: Progress made, but fights over the size of the welfare state to continue

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Spending is only half of the process. (4.00 / 5)
The other half is revenue. Without fundamental restructuring of the tax system, Congress can putter with the safety net all it wants, but the funding won't be there to make it real. True some money can be shifted from the military and from corporate giveaways, etc, but there's a limit to that. I think the real next battle has to be over restarting our traditional progressive tax system.

The next "welfare state" fight should be disability insurance. (4.00 / 1)
The California state program (SDI) is a model. It's a godsend when you get sick or have a family emergency. Of course it pales next to what other countries have. The Dutch, for example: I believe it's 2/3rds of your salary for five years, and then if a doctor says you're still disabled it keeps going. And yet they're not going bankrupt--imagine that.

yes (4.00 / 3)
I think this is related -- New Jersey recently started a "family leave" program.

I have to say I read Yglesias' piece and thought it was really striking how poverty did not play any role in his thinking. Now, I don't have the answers, but it seems to me a reasonable prediction that progressives might want to pursue a government program on poverty someday.  



New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.


[ Parent ]
Maybe we could "expand" the food stamp progaram. (4.00 / 5)
We could mandate that everyone be required to buy a monthly supply of caviar at whatever the seller wished to charge (crackers not included).

The seller would be allowed to sell anything he wanted to as "caviar" but he would not be allowed to call it a pre-existing condition.  Other than that, anything goes.

It's just an idea.  For a real progressive bill, we'd have to let the caviar folks write it themselves.

Then we can declare victory and pat ourselves on the back.


that's very unfair (4.00 / 3)
Only "bronze plans" would not include crackers.



New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.


[ Parent ]
Wow, that would be (4.00 / 2)
a Big Fuckin Deal !!!

[ Parent ]
It would be instructive to compare similar figures in other industrialized nations. (4.00 / 1)


and what provision is acquired by that spending (4.00 / 6)
how can 'progressives efforts to expand the size of the welfare state' be over if there is still:

no universal, free, high quality health care in the United States (regardless of whether a corporate or government model is used);
no paid maternity leave;
limited unemployment benefits;
inadequate funding for schools and inadequate provision of education;
limited benefits for people who lost their jobs as the result of government industrial policies;
limited spending to ensure that people are aware and able to access said spending;
little help for extraordinarily high university tuition;
little help for extraordinarily high postgraduate and professional school tuition;
limited public media;
etc.

seriously? this is what the end goal was for yglesias?  what kind of progressivism is that?  this isn't even a minimal safety net compared to other wealthy countries and i can show you where to get the money tomorrow to produce one- end the wars and shift the military economy generally, and reform the tax system to reflect some sense of decency and an industrial policy that goes beyond 'give all the money to finance capital.'


[ Parent ]
I think what Yglesias really meant was (4.00 / 5)
"progressive efforts to expand those parts of the welfare state from which my corporate owners can extract a profit are basically done."


exactly - I would add if I could (0.00 / 0)
but that is so succinctly perfect.  

[ Parent ]
and to reply to questions about these numbers already made when they were presented in context (4.00 / 1)
http://www.openleft.com/showCo...

1. Which specific graphs did you get this data from?  It's hard to evaluate an argument like this without knowing more.

2. The data for 2008 to 2010 for state and local levels is 'guesstimated' by the site.  The method is not provided that I could see.
http://usgovernmentspending.bl...

3. Why is transportation included here?  I don't know what falls under this, but to me highway and construction are infrastructure, not part of the social safety net.

4. Spending is not equivalent to provision of a safety net, though it's useful that their data takes into accoutn federal, state, and local spending.  It would be interesting to hear from someone who would know how reliable the census figures are for state and local spending.  But that aside, one could make a reasonable argument that health insurance company profits should be deducted from this spending in terms of accounting for public spending.  And other examples as well.

The base question is to what extent a safety net is being provided, to whom, and how effective is it?  If you contrast the 1996 welfare reform with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, one could make the argument that this was a net loss in terms of social safety net provision because some of the most vulnerable people were cast off.  

So your argument could be right, could be wrong, but it's hard to tell from what's presented.  For example, how does it square up with this OECD data for 2001, which says the U.S. safety net is 8% of GDP, not 24%.  I don't know whether the the OECD hasn't included state and local spending or whether there is some cooking of the books going on in the way the data is assembled in the U.S. spending or simply a reflectino of different understandings of what a social safety net is by the two sources.

However, I'd caution against casually relying singly on the data of a site that is devote to highlighting that the U.S. government spends too much without looking more carefully at the issue.



"Welfare state" (4.00 / 2)
I've been preoccupied with local affairs and may have missed this discussion, but is anyone else concerned that the phrase "welfare state" carries a lot of baggage?  It's an extremely hot button word where I live - I doubt rehabilitation is even possible.  

Join the conversation at Left In Alabama.

Yes, that's why I admire Chris for using it. (4.00 / 2)
Conservatives have done a lot to discredit the term "welfare state." But that's what it is, and there is nothing wrong with it. Progressives in the USA should get used to speaking the same language as progressives in the rest of the world.

I think that some of the wealth I create, and that others create, should go to people who do not have as much, so they do not get sick and die, or generally live miserable lives. I feel this way whether or not the recipients of my excess wealth are doing anything useful with their time. I feel strongly that everyone who wants to work should have a right to a productive job, regardless of their level talent or physical strength.

On the other hand, I DO NOT believe that people who already have a lot of stuff ("rich capitalists") should get a share of the wealth I create just by virtue of having the power to coerce me to give it to them, as they do in our current system in the USA.

All this makes me a supporter of the "welfare state" (socialism light) instead of a supporter of capitalism (which has mostly morphed in corporatism.)

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)


[ Parent ]
Pessimist (0.00 / 0)
"The Optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds.  The Pessimist fears it is true."

I worry that Matt may be correct.


The Overstatement of the Year (0.00 / 0)
progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done

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