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The welfare state, upward mobility and education

Updated on February 19, 2012

As my last hub mentioned, I could be considered a moderate libertarian by some standards, but I now feel more comfortable calling myself an independent, albeit with some libertarian leanings, of course. But one area where I particularly disagree with libertarians is issues involving the welfare state. I don’t think privatizing it is a good idea. But I have to confess that my motivation for this position is partly self interest.

I’m benefiting from the welfare state right now. I’ve been receiving SSI disability payments for years because I have Asperger’s syndrome. But I haven’t been doing nothing during that time. Most of the last 8 years I’ve spent in college, first graduating from a community college with a general studies degree and then transferring to a four -year university, where I received a bachelor’s degree in English in 2010. Since then, I’ve been unemployed, but I’m working with an employment assistance agency at the moment to get a job, and I want to get off disability and become independent.

But it’s not entirely self interest for why I support the welfare state either. I think economic insecurity is a very real thing, especially for people with disabilities, and I’m not convinced by libertarian arguments that private charity would be sufficient for all of the people who really need help. I also don’t have any real objection to government providing help compared to the private sector. I don’t think government is always bad, but it is way too big and intrusive right now. But providing a safety net is one thing I don’t particularly mind the government doing.

Nevertheless, I do support reforms to the welfare system. There has to be some incentive for people to become employed citizens and not just rot away on welfare or unemployment insurance. The system as it is currently set up does very little to lift people out of poverty. Thus, I support Newt Gingrich’s idea that there should be mandatory jobs training programs for people on unemployment insurance, and perhaps for people on disability insurance and welfare as well. I’m not a Gingrich supporter by any means. I think his ideas on civil liberties and foreign policy are awful. My preferred candidate for president is former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who is currently seeking the libertarian nomination for president. But on this particular issue, I think Gingrich has a better idea than Ron Paul, who seems to think we can eventually, someday, transition to a fully privatized welfare system. I don’t have anything against private charity and think that in some ways, it may do a better job than government. But I’ve seen very little data on exactly how well private charity performed compared to the government prior to the New Deal, and thus am skeptical of absolutist positions like this.

But more importantly, there has to be more to our welfare state than just giving people a check. That doesn’t do anything to insure that that person will look for a job, develop good job skills, become less dependent on others, and become independent. Dependency on public assistance is a very real thing. I know that because I’ve experienced it all these years living off SSI payments. I’m currently dependent on others to a degree that I dislike and I’m trying to change. But I still have fears of the future and living on my own, and in some ways, it sometimes seems more comforting for me to live on assistance. But I know I can’t live that way forever and I don’t want to. I want to become independent and employed. For other people, who may not have many marketable skills, these problems may be even worse. Thus, employment programs are a must.

Newt Gingrich has recently received considerable flak for referring to president Obama as the ‘food stamp” president. Some have even called it racist. I strongly disagree with such characterizations, but I’ll put that aside for now. Beneath the accusation is a ring of truth, but not one that many Republicans want to hear. Both President George Bush and Obama are to be blamed for the increasing number of people on food stamps. Starting with George W. Bush, eligibility requirements for food stamps were loosened and more people entered the rolls than under Obama. But Obama’s stimulus package also loosened eligibility rolls further. So both parties are responsible.

To some extent, the increase makes sense in light of the recession and I don’t necessarily disapprove of the rolls being increased if the people really need it. But I fail to see how putting more people on unemployment insurance, SSI, or welfare increases employment. I’m admittedly not well-versed in economics, but being paid to not work doesn’t seem like it would help people become employed or create jobs. Research has shown that people on unemployment insurance often wait until their benefits run out before they get a job.

Thus, if you want people to become independent, employed, and off public assistance, attach the condition of jobs training programs to the benefits. I think most people are capable of doing some kind of job, even if it’s janitorial work. For those who absolutely cannot work, I don’t object to them being on disability or whatever. But for people who can, I think mandatory training programs should be enacted for people who receive welfare benefits.

There are other aspects of the welfare state that I think are even more misguided than these policies. For example, affirmative action. Aside from the fact that it is fundamentally wrong to admit lesser qualified people to a college or job position over more qualified people, it masks the real problems, which is a poor education. The lower-performing student admitted to a college will no doubt have to take remedial classes to catch up to his higher performing classmates, and sometimes the standards are lowered considerably to pass students who produce poor work. There is no guarantee that the minority student admitted under affirmative action will not drop out due to their struggles, and in many cases, that is what happens. Thus, affirmative action seems to treat the symptoms of the problem, not the causes.

Improving the socioeconomic status of minorities is a legitimate goal, as I don’t think it can be denied that minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics, suffer disproportionately from poverty, crime, and lack of economic success. I just disagree with most liberals on the proper way to address these problems. Education is the key, and I think the public education system has performed poorly for years, with little true competition and choices available to the populace. Rather than throwing more money at a system that has not changed at all despite significant increases in education spending the past few decades, I say we expand school vouchers, so people can choose the school their children go to. Private schools have shown to be superior to public education for years, and it is not because of selective admissions policies or stringent suspensions or expulsions of trouble-maker students. Sure, some of that exists to an extent. Private schools certainly don’t always accept everybody. But when the main beneficiaries of school choice programs have been low-income kids and disabled kids, the very criticism seems to lack common sense. Surely, all these disadvantaged kids that the programs were specifically designed for haven’t been turned away from the private sector in droves if the proclamations of school choice opponents were true, have they? If they had, liberals would have a smoking gun, but they can’t point to evidence like that. And if the practice of rejecting hard-to-educate kids in the private sector is as common as liberals say it is, why would vouchers be specifically tailored to disadvantaged kids in the first place? Why not just make them available to everybody? Is there something I’m missing? It’s not like middle class white people are eligible to use vouchers, like they are in some foreign countries. That’s why the arguments used by progressives about how vouchers benefit the haves to the detriment of the have-nots don’t make a damn bit of sense.

Even if you want to argue that the public education system does work, and I suppose it does for some people, it doesn’t work for everybody because people are different. There is no one comprehensive, one-size-fits-all method or curriculum that works for everybody, which is why calls for a national curriculum are similarly misguided. Learning is an inherently individual activity, and no one method can work for everybody. Thus, people should be free to choose the school they feel is best for their child, rather than being assigned one based on place of residence.

I think these reforms would do a much better job of increasing “upward mobility” than the proposals offered by liberals. These are not “purist” libertarian solutions, but I don’t care. I prefer to live in reality and deal with reforms that may actually come to fruition.

Even from a moderate libertarian perspective though, there may be some problems with the proposals I’ve outlined. Mandatory jobs training programs and school vouchers certainly cost money, and in a time when the federal government is $15 trillion dollars in debt, this may not be the most realistic concern. Well, I think major cuts in federal spending should be the first goal and these reforms will have to come later. Furthermore, I think it may be better if school vouchers stuck to being a state issue, not a federal one. Perhaps welfare should be a state issue too. But overall, I think these programs would do better to increase upward mobility than the proposals by liberals.


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    • Brad C. L. profile image

      Brad C. L. 6 years ago

      thanks, Leekley.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 6 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      A number of your positions and assumptions are arguable, but you express yourself very well, and I appreciate your striving for clarity and common sense.