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The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity

The Atlantic just posted a very good and very long essay with this title. I can't recommend it enough. It's well worth getting your caffeine delivery device of choice and sitting down and reading and chewing on the information contained in this essay.

The author starts off with some historical background to the social safety net in the US and how we got to where we are now. Then they bust out the numbers and basically show why private charity is not enough and why the state has to be involved with poverty amelioration. Because i'm still digesting, let me highlight a few key paragraphs from the essay, but please head over and read the whole thing!


The Highlights Reel!

But this conservative vision of social insurance is wrong. It's incorrect as a matter of history; it ignores the complex interaction between public and private social insurance that has always existed in the United States. It completely misses why the old system collapsed and why a new one was put in its place. It fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances.

But there did exist a system of voluntary social insurance during the turn of the century. In From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, historian David Beito writes that there were thousands of fraternal societies across America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These societies were organized by religion, ethnicity, and other similar affiliations. They were also the most common provider of insurance and relief before the New Deal. In general, they would cover funeral costs and provide some sick pay. These were particularly important for low-wage workers, and played a bigger role in insurance than charity or welfare institutions. Politically and socially fragmented, they played no part in calling for a public role in social insurance. These institutions continue to be a focus of celebration for conservatives.

Informal networks of local support, from churches to ethnic affiliations, were all overrun in the Great Depression. Ethnic benefit societies, building and loan associations, fraternal insurance policies, bank accounts, and credit arrangements all had major failure rates. All of the fraternal insurance societies that had served as anchors of their communities in the 1920s either collapsed or had to pull back on their services due to high demand and dwindling resources. Beyond the fact that insurance wasn't available, this had major implications for spending, as moneylending as well as benefits for sickness and injuries were reduced.

But the Great Recession offers the perfect case study in why the voluntary sector can't solve these problems. If people like Mike Lee are correct, then the start of the Great Recession would have been precisely the moment when private charity would have stepped up. But in fact, private giving fell as the Great Recession started. Overall giving fell 7 percent in 2008, with another 6.2 percent drop in 2009. There was only a small uptick in 2010 and 2011, even though unemployment remained very high. Giving also fell as a percentage of GDP (even as GDP shrank), from 2.1 percent in 2008 to 2.0 percent in 2009 through 2011. (The high point was 2.3 percent in 2005.)

At a basic level, much of our elite charitable giving is about status signaling, especially in donations to elite cultural and educational institutions. And much of it is also about political mobilization to pursue objectives favorable to rich elites. As the judge Richard Posner once wrote, a charitable foundation "is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody" that closely resembles a hereditary monarchy. Why would we put our entire society's ability to manage the deadly risks we face in the hands of such a creature?

A public social insurance state gives every individual the security necessary to take risks, which enriches both our economy and our society. And it also establishes a baseline of equality and solidarity among all citizens, so that charity enhances the lives of the less fortunate instead of forcing them to rely on those with money and luck.


AND those are the highlights,there's much more in the actual essay. I'll be online off and on the rest of the evening, so if i dont respond immediately, please be patient!

Illustration for article titled The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity

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