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Being Humane and Being Fair

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This weekend I had an interesting discussion with a good-intentioned, but misinformed American. She was convinced that the majority of America's poor live fantastic lives receiving free luxury apartments, regularly purchase lobster dinners with food stamps and receive an extra thousand a week for each child they have. When I inserted some facts into the discussion by pointing out the fallacy in her statements, she wrapped up the discussion quickly and left.

Political decision-making is often supported by public misinformation. Myths and ungrounded accusations can easily be tossed about and have a lasting impact in people's minds, regardless of whether there was ever any facts to support them. Images can last lifetimes, with false images often pass from generation to generation like a family heirloom.

Her own fantasy was nothing more than a rehash of the Welfare Queen mythology, the massive exaggerations of fraud (and the resulting luxurious lifestyles of the poor) that allows her to justify providing minimal social support. This mythology is often rife with overt negative racial and class stereotypes.

In reality, in any form of social supports (whether those are food subsidies, housing subsidies, Medicaid, etc.) there will be a few that take advantage of the system. This is human nature, and to ignore so would be foolish. The fact that some people will take advantage of a social support system doesn't mean the system should be abolished. Rather, that means that quality checks and incentives need to be put in place to improve design and implementation while ensuring that the system is a support and not a disincentive.

In America, conservatives often argue against social support systems by making claims of massive fraud or by stating that the existence of any form of social support discourages personal responsibility.

Liberals often defend social support systems by reminding us that humans have certain rights, including the right to live, to have basic health, to have food... while ignoring the system's limitations and problems.

So what is the right approach? The goal should always be to have a system that is both humane and fair.

Humane in that it provides appropriate care and support to those in need, whether those needy are elderly, the poor, the sick, etc. Humane doesn't mean everyone has the right to eat filet mignon, drive a sports car and receive on-demand knee replacement surgery but it does mean everyone has the right to a decent life.

Fair in that the system is fair to everyone, both the current recipients and those who are currently paying into the system. A fair system has checks to ensure that (a) people are paying the appropriate amount into the system rather than hiding money in illegal accounts and activities and (b) that those receiving benefits are not taking advantage of the system by lying, cheating, manipulation, etc. The programs and systems need to be designed so that people are encouraged to move off social supports but that can only happen if current recipients can earn more then their benefits are worth. The transition from benefit-recipient to tax contributor has to be designed and managed well to ensure that the incentives are aligned.

The richest and most powerful nation that the world has ever known can certainly design a social support system that is both humane and fair. The richest and most powerful nation that the world has ever seen can certainly afford to feed, house and cloth all its citizens.

What holds America back from providing stronger social support? Why does America persist in having one of the weakest social support systems of any country? Some of America's justification for it comparatively minimal social support is the myth that America is a meritocracy filled with rapid socioeconomic mobility. In fact, Americans are more tied to the class of their parents than citizens of nearly every other wealthy country on earth. As the myth of American social mobility is replaced with the fact that America has comparatively low social mobility will more people demand real change in America society?


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