Strengthening the Social Safety Net
In recent years, Republican politicians have seemed to lead most discussions on what needs to be done to shore up a social safety net which they see as hopelessly unable to remain affordable. They often raise proposals to make the system more stable by privatizing all or parts of the system – increasing money available while also increasing risks to beneficiaries while guaranteeing increased profits to Wall Street in the form of service fees, etc. Democratic politicians often seem to be on the defensive in these discussions, trying to prove that the system may be adequately maintained with some tweaking – usually by either raising taxes on everyone or by reducing benefits by raising eligibility age requirements or increasing premiums. Bold suggestions to go neither route while maintaining or increasing benefits are seen as unrealistic or too costly.
The mainstream arguments for chipping away start from a premise which was argued unsuccessfully by opponents of social spending for the public good going back as far as the fight to institute the New Deal programs which helped mitigate the harmful effects of the Great Depression and ran the gamut through institutionalizing all the programs which have been implemented to combat poverty and provide opportunities for health, education and welfare ever since. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, housing assistance, financial aid for higher education are all means by which people are enabled to attain, maintain or achieve a standard of living, productivity and/or economic well-being which would, under the guise of free market capitalism be unavailable to them due to circumstances beyond their control.
Conservatives defend the inequalities of our system by saying that those at the top, financially, politically or however else one may wish to determine personal success, earned that distinction through hard work or talent. Examples are made of people who start out dirt poor, drop out of school and become billionaires. Everybody has the same opportunity to achieve the same, if they work hard enough. People who do not are made to seem defective and undeserving of the resources it would take to bring them up to equal footing on a level playing field with those at the top. Thus we get comments about welfare queens, the 47% of the people who are takers, not makers and other balderdash that comes out of the mouths of politicians who wish to preserve the status quo because it has enabled them to attain a position of relative power and influence when compared to their fellow human beings.
People deserve to be treated equally and have equal opportunity to live fulfilling lives, not merely survive. Pretending everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed by societal standards when one is forced to take out huge loans to get a college degree, then take a low paying job just to try to pay back the debt while another never has to borrow a dime or even pay back a penny is preposterous. Mitt Romney telling some college students to borrow money from their parents to start a business showed how out of touch with the reality of the average American he truly is.
When we are talking the social safety net, we often are not talking about thriving, but merely surviving. That does not need to be the case. This society has more than enough resources to ensure that all people may be allowed to live at more than just the bare minimum required for survival. The context of this conversation has gone way out of whack. Having fewer people with no food to eat, nowhere to live, and no way to obtain affordable health care or learn the knowledge and skills necessary for gainful employment in our economy should not be the goal. Making sure that all have these things and the ability to obtain more should be what we strive for as a society. The resources already exist. That they are not already distributed in such a manner as to fulfill the needs of all of us is a travesty of justice.
Walk through just about any city, town or village in America and you will find sufficient vacant shelter available to house many more people than are presently homeless. Likewise, while there are currently many places no earth where there is insufficient food to sustain all the people there, that is certainly not the case here. I contend that the same is true for virtually every factor in our lives. Rather than finding new ways for people to take advantage of the needs of others to acquire ever greater personal wealth for themselves, perhaps we would be well advised to make sure that while we are doing so, we aren’t creating a society that does not adequately care for its sick, its children and its elderly. Rather than squeezing a few more dollars out of a retired person who worked and paid into Social Security for a lifetime, cutting back already insufficient SNAP benefits or cutting Medicare and Medicaid to place more of the burden on those who can least afford it, we should be budgeting to improve their lives, rather than making it even hard for them to merely scrape by.
The money is there. Our economy has recovered from the last recession – just ask the President and all the economic forecasters. True, most of the money gained went directly to the 1%, but it’s still there.Instead of doubling down on the wasteful tax loopholes that ensure that a billionaire pays a lower percentage of his or her income (not to mention wealth) in taxes than a fast food worker earning minimum wage, maybe we should be doing some work making the distribution of resources a tad more equitable and fair to all of us, rather than benefiting a relative few.
Social Security is probably the easiest fix. Eliminate the income cap on the payroll tax that funds it. This would provide considerable added revenue, and make the tax much less regressive than it has been since its inception. Recognize the fact that Social Security is not merely a supplemental income stream for most Americans – it is their mainstay. With the current problems of pension funds and periodic decimation of 401k plans to augment the greed of Wall Street, dependence on Social Security will likely continue to increase in the future, not fade away. Privatizing it would just serve to further enrich the mavens of Wall Street ( all those lovely maintenance fees you see in your 401k multiplied by all that tax money, not to mention the volatility of the stock market). Everyone deserves a comfortable retirement, not just those wealthy enough to salt away a $100 million IRA.
Health care may be more expensive in the short run, but the main flaw right now is that we are being too careful to safeguard the profit streams of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In no other industrialized nation is health care more expensive or inequitably administered than it is here. The Affordable Care Act has improved coverage for millions, but it is still too costly for too many – as well as being too dependent on what state one resides in. Work on a single-payer plan with universal coverage modeled on, but not necessarily identical to that currently available in other countries is affordable and would be far more equitable than either what is presently available here or would be available if the GOP got the chance to dismantle the ACA. Divorce health insurance from employment. The hodgepodge gobbledygook nonsense that Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court are doing to the ACA should be a lesson, and the ACA doesn’t do enough to ensure coverage for long-term unemployed adults.
Similar improvements to funding Higher Education are also easy. Back before Reagan, obtaining need-based financial aid without need of loans was easy. What’s that money used for now – more bombs and drones for the Middle East? Eliminating destructive excessive military spending, as well as tax shelters and loopholes that benefit the wealthy almost exclusively ( who needs a tax free $100 million IRA, anyway?) as well as the extremely low capital gains tax rate would be places to look for revenues. Corporate tax breaks that encourage avoidance by allowing companies to pretend their profits are made overseas would be another. Removing loopholes that enable corporations to deduct outrageous executive compensation packages from their taxes – increasing our economic inequality problem while rewarding CEOs and other executives for decimating jobs in this country to improve stockholder dividends and inflate stock prices – could be yet another.
Strengthening labor rights and boosting wages (especially the minimum wage) would be another step in the right direction to bolster the economy and create more jobs (to meet added demand for goods and services). All of these ideas should be included in a discussion to move toward a more equitable society that better meets the needs of all its members, not just the fortunate minority seeking to entrench their wealth, political clout and power for generations to come. We don’t need to repeal the New Deal, we need to enhance it. Stop letting those preaching austerity dominate the discussion with talk of scarcity and start better utilizing and distributing the wealth created by and belonging to society as a whole.
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