Welfare is Not a Dirty Word

by ADAM PARSONS

It was compelling to read the November issue of In These Times titled ‘The Welfare State of America‘. Over the other side of the pond, the idea of a welfare state is hardly a controversial topic for most (‘most’) Europeans, especially in those countries like the UK that have long heralded the state pension, the National Health Service and, until not so long ago, free university education. But this has never been the case in America, where talk of the welfare state is often viewed as socialism or even closet Marxism – however ludicrous that might seem to the general public in Western Europe. Not even Prime Minister David Cameron, for all his plans to dismantle the NHS and privatize education in the UK, could declare his outright opposition to the post-war ideal of universal welfare provision.

How refreshing then to see the bold headline of In These Times that speaks a great deal of common sense and practical realism about expanding the welfare state in America. In an editorial titled ‘For the Welfare of All‘ by Frances Fox Piven, the American professor and well-known defendant of universal welfare, she upholds the proposal of Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara in their headline article to inaugurate an anti-austerity campaign that focuses on the expansion of government social welfare programs.

As Frase and Sunkara’s article explains, Americans have long been duped by the political right into believing that they do not benefit from a welfare state. Many American’s don’t even know that they have a welfare state already, however tentative the existing social safety net may be. Yet the social, political and economic reasons for providing universal health services, educating children, bolstering the income of the less-well-off and subsidizing housing should be obvious, if only from the most basic moral imperative. In Piven’s words, it’s because “a good society strives to meet the basic needs of its people”, which is fundamental to building a fairer and more democratic country.

Welfare for all

Building an effective welfare state is also about that most coveted of all American values – “an overriding sense of freedom”, as Frase and Sunkara put it. “Freedom to give… children an education without rival. Freedom from poverty, hunger and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible health care. Freedom to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to organize with fellow workers for redress.”

How is it then that we have drifted so far from this simple reasoning, to the extent that good, decent ordinary people are conditioned into thinking that universal welfare programs are something to fight against and despise? Frase and Sunkara say it’s because the political right works hard to hide the benefit of government programs, as part of a “deliberate strategy to divide the country into two camps by convincing the majority of voters that their labor is benefiting parasites dependent on the social safety net.” However the Democrats are far from the espousers of universal welfare either, they say, and have helped tailor an overly-complex welfare system that relies too heavily on private organizations, provides few benefits compared to other rich countries, and disproportionately benefits the affluent.

The solution, they say, is for progressives of all stripes to loudly proclaim that social democracy benefits everyone. “Few have pushed for the structural changes necessary to build a strong welfare state”, they write. And even if it seems like a poor moment to call for expanding universal welfare provision, they believe that the timing has never in fact been better. Romney, with his seething contempt for America’s welfare beneficiaries, has just been kept out of office and exposed as a “caricature out-of-touch-elite”. Austerity measures are already worsening unemployment and stagnating wages across the country. And whatever politicians say about out-of-control spending and labor market uncertainties, there is no reason why the government cannot allocate the finances to ensure that everyone has access to health care, education, a secure retirement and a liveable income.

An anti-austerity coalition

Hence Frase and Sunkara’s proposal to form a new anti-austerity coalition across the U.S. (including Occupy groups, organized labour, and local and state officials); to nationalize the welfare system of America; and to uphold true social democracy as a first step to achieving more radical reforms in the future. This should be music to the ears of European campaigners who have long been mobilizing in opposition to government cutbacks to welfare and essential services. Only this weekend at the Firenze 10+10 conference in Florence, Italy, some thousands of campaigners and progressive economists from across Europe were debating mass mobilization against austerity and the need for a region-wide movement for economic and social justice. With the rise of U.S. public opinion against austerity, could we be talking about the possibility of a European/American coalition movement that unites under the banner of defending and strengthening the welfare state?

If so, it is essential that more and more progressives follow Frase and Sunkara’s example in advocating the importance of sharing on a nationwide level – which is exactly what the universal provision of social welfare is all about. If we are to overcome the divisive work of right-wing politicians who have deluded people into thinking that publicly-provided welfare is undesirable, there is no better place to start than proudly hailing such terms as ‘economic sharing’, ‘social democracy’ and – particularly for those campaigners in America – the ‘welfare state’. Contrary to much distorted public opinion, these terms are not dirty words but remain the greatest source of hope for a more democratic, free and peaceful future. We may not be ready to seriously discuss a public sector for the world, but this could be an imperative step in the right direction.

Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources. He can be contacted at adam(at)stwr.org.

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