Last week’s efforts that led to the passage by one vote of a House Republican proposal to change health care illustrates the deeper questions now bubbling up about what Americans demand of their government. The Republican-controlled Senate will now take up their version of a health care plan that is likely to differ significantly from the House plan. Meanwhile the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – tagged by supporters and detractors alike as Obamacare – remains the law of the land.
The present donnybrook is likely to play out over several months. The health care debate is set against an even more volatile backdrop as questions about the federal government’s continuing commitment to Medicaid expansion swirl around the efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. These arguments raise even larger questions about how the government should treat other society-wide entitlements like Social Security.
Almost every American agrees that the government has basic responsibilities in defense, infrastructure, and in other areas that protect and regulate American society and how America relates to the world.
But should its citizens also expect that the government work to improve their quality of life from “cradle through career,” that is, from birth to death?
Whatever the mechanism, should government, coordinated at the local, county, state, and federal levels, determine what quality-of-life “markers” best meet the needs of American citizens? There is an old adage that Democrats must always be stopped from misguided efforts to create new entitlements. The argument goes that once citizens appreciate the new benefit, it is almost impossible to take the entitlement away. Americans must make sense of – and be willing to fund – entitlement programs that improve their quality of life.
Open Since the Great Depression, Entitlement “Door” Unlikely to Close
The plain fact is that the entitlement door swung wide open in the Great Depression and will likely never close. Policy debates over state’s rights, free market solutions, and cost have real meaning but are really more about tactics and philosophies rather than outcome. There are times, like the “guns and butter” policy debates of the Vietnam War years, that inform the partisan arguments over health care emerging from the quagmire of the Washington swamp today.
But voters’ support for entitlement programs has been a given for 80 years. The debate is over even if the skirmishes over tactics, philosophies and funding continue.
We should accept that entitlement programs are a cornerstone principle upon which the foundation of American society is built. Any efforts to end them or diminish their reach or value will meet sharp resistance from American voters. It’s something tangible – like Social Security or Medicare -- that Americans feel that their government guarantees to work for them.
Debate About Role of Entitlement Programs is Bigger than Health Care
That having been said one of the most interesting historic policy debates of the 21st century will be the continuing role that entitlement programs play in American society. Central to this debate will be which entitlement programs must be supported and whether there is room for a deeper analysis of how current and potential entitlements contribute most to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
We should prepare for these challenges now.
Americans clearly want a safety net that includes Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The task will be to put these programs on a solid footing, looking at a variety of efficiencies, partnerships, their scalability, and new revenue streams, including tax adjustments to pay for these programs. But within these parameters, any new programs proposed must include progressive thinking about what we mean by entitlement.
Is Education a Privilege or a Right in American Society?
One example illustrates this point: Is education – from pre-kindergarten through college – a privilege or a right in American society?
If we focus on higher education, there’s a pragmatic side to this question. America now competes in a global marketplace, despite the rhetoric about “America first.” We know that a college degree is roughly akin to a high school diploma from a generation ago. Economists studying market and labor conditions estimate that as many as sixteen million jobs requiring at least a college degree may go unfulfilled in the next few years.
Higher Ed Leaders Must Claim College Education as Entitlement
Yet despite the considerable funding available, education is a politicized, chaotic mess that frustrates consumers and policy makers. Higher education leadership must lay out a crisp, common sense justification for why education – specifically, higher education – should move above prisons in the laundry list of fundable priorities.
To be fearless in claiming education as an entitlement right for American citizens, college and university leaders must ask – and answer – bold questions:
- Can Americans establish a better, broader definition of “entitlement” that provides a continuous pathway to a productive life from cradle through career?
- Is the current definition of “safety net” too narrow and simplistic to meet the global economic demands that America faces?
- Is the funding solution to each entitlement different based upon the history, existing revenue streams, and the value to society?
- What benefits are Americans entitled to receive from their taxes?
The answers to these questions will shape the quality of life in the United States for generations to come.
This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.