Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff had an interesting piece in the NYT this weekend entitled “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.” An early quote provides the context:
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.
Rather than restating a host of projections that many of us know all too well, the remainder of the piece works through a variety of vignettes of individuals—largely middle class or lower middle-class–who depend on various parts of the welfare state (e.g., Medicare, Social Security disability). In most cases, they recognize the problem of fiscal imbalances and they detest liabilities being passed on to future generations; many seem like rank-and-file tea party advocates who advocate cutting the size of government. At the same time, they have few alternatives to the safety net. There comments are in many ways tragic. Here is one example:
She [Barbara] believes that she is taking more from the government than she paid in taxes. She worries about the consequences for her grandchildren. She said she would like politicians to propose solutions.
“We’re reasonable people,” she said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Give it to me and let my grandchildren suffer.’ I think they underestimate seniors when they think that way.”
But she cannot imagine asking people to pay higher taxes. And as she considered making do with less, she started to cry.
“Without it, I’m not sure how I would live,” she said. “With the check I’m getting from Social Security, it’s a constant struggle on making sure that I pay my rent and have enough left for groceries.
“I haven’t bought a Christmas present, I haven’t bought clothing in the last five years, simply because I can’t afford it.”
While I doubt that there is anything approaching a random sample in this piece, the stories are touching and worth reading as you reflect on the long-term liability crisis. The long-term fiscal imbalances cannot be addressed without significant reform in the largest entitlement systems and increases in revenues. But several of the characters in this article (1) recognize this fact but (2) clearly have no sense of how they could survive without the current levels of support.
Obviously, the expansion of the safety net has been accompanied by changes in social norms and the displacement of private institutions. At one time, people like Barbara might have been confident that their extended families and congregations would never let them fall into abject poverty in the absence of public programs. But it is difficult to imagine that a significant reduction in entitlement spending would lead to a revivification of a world that has long passed, at least on a timeline that would be relevant to current beneficiaries.
Reform will come—the status quo simply cannot be maintained. But reform will impose a great deal of pain in a nation where so many have come to depend on the state for so much and there are few live alternatives.
EDITORIAL UPDATE: Those interested in more of Marc’s thoughts on this subject should look here as well.