Why do I support a state welfare system?

(image found just about everywhere in some form, but this one is credit to quora.com)

Sometimes I answer questions on Quora, which is a website dedicated to having people with different viewpoints discuss issues and give perspectives. Some questions are very straightforward, like “What is the best router out there right now?” I don’t answer those, because I don’t find them interesting. Some I answer because they fit me: “As a teacher, have you ever had X happen?” These are good opportunities to share experiences with people new to the profession. However, I also answer some political viewpoint questions. One question that was asked was: “How come so many liberals support the welfare system but don’t collect on it?” I’m posting my answer in full below, with some followup thoughts on the matter. The very short answer is this: I think it’s the most efficient way to help those in need in our country. Here’s the long version:

I can’t speak for others, but I support the welfare system because I believe that a government run safety net is a better way to get people help that they need than private charities. Private charities tend to reward people that the givers either know personally or agree with in some way. Much of the money a church collects, for example, will go to members of that congregation in need or to people deemed worthy of helping by that congregation, which can be based on whatever criteria they see fit.

This means that if you do not fit the criteria (perhaps you aren’t a Christian, for example), you are FAR less likely to get help, even if you need it.

Now, I will grant that the more math based approach govt. takes isn’t perfect either. Simply being below the poverty line does not in itself mean that you deserve help. Perhaps you did something foolish or reckless to be in that situation. In general, I think that the people who deserve the most help are those that are experiencing misfortune through no fault of their own. So, one might think I would prefer the private charity approach, where help is based on merit. However, in my experience, merit gets defined, again, as being similar to the person giving, or to somehow fitting the arbitrary criteria of the private donors.

So, I take a welfare system to be the better approach. It’s far from perfect. But it has established criteria, that are not arbitrary, that can get help to people in need. I once read that in order to replace welfare in the U.S., private donations would need to be ten TIMES higher than they are now. While some believe that lowering taxes would allow private charities to make up this difference, I see no evidence for that. People who give to charity do so regardless of taxation. People who get breaks on their taxes, who were not giving before, do not suddenly give. They spend the money on themselves, in my experience.

As a result, I support the public welfare approach to this problem, even though I do not get welfare, and I am unlikely to ever need it. Together, my wife and I make 6 figures a year; we don’t have children and will not have children. We have no debt, other than our mortgage. I support welfare as a means to helping the needy in our society.

Followup thoughts: I’ve gotten a lot of positive response to this question on Quora, but I left out some things for the sake of brevity. First, I did not always think this way. In my youth, I would have called myself a social liberal and fiscal conservative. I probably even used the label ‘libertarian’ at several points. I now shudder to think back to how easily I adapted that label, without really understanding libertarianism. I basically thought that the government should stay out of economics altogether. People should sink or swim on their own, since we all had opportunity. If you didn’t take advantage of it, that was your fault. If it wasn’t your fault, charities would help you. The government would just mess it all up!

I was very naïve. Perhaps I still am. In any case, what I didn’t realize at the time is fairly simple to articulate now. We don’t all have the same opportunities in this world. Libertarianism assumes an equal playing field that simply does not exist in the real world. As a white, reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, well educated, male not only were certain doors open to me that were closed to others, but in many cases, I could take the closed doors and open them with a simple request. If I made a mistake, it was never damning. I would always get another chance after that one. I didn’t realize that I was living life in easy mode until I started to examine the system in more detail in grad school. I became more politically aware, and I understand how the US system pretends at social mobility but only fulfills that promise to select groups.

More simply, I didn’t understand the ways in which factors outside our control could influence our opportunities. I should have seen it; no excuses. I should have. But when you are benefiting from an existing system, you tend not to question it. You buy into the narrative that it’s good for everyone. Sure, I had black coworkers try to explain to me what driving while black meant, and the ways in which they were judged all the time, with people expecting them to make a wrong move. But I didn’t listen. I just never saw this happen. I mean I knew they believed this, but it struck me as unlikely. This wasn’t the 60s. Racism was largely a thing of the past, I thought.

Then, I became a college professor. I started to see how the different upbringings of different groups (racial, economic, etc.) influenced the way students thought, their ability to write, the information available to them when making arguments…it was so obvious. I thought back to how I arrived where I was, and I realized all the advantages that were given to me: a private education for the first 6 years of my schooling, which set me ahead of all my public education peers, a safety net that meant I would never go hungry or wonder where I might sleep each night, a support system for emotional problems…the list goes on and on. But even aside from these things, I could think back to the times where I was doing something wrong (kid stuff), and the police and other authority figures would give me the benefit of doubt. I’d get a warning, or a slap on the hand.

I read the studies showing that just having an African American sounding name made companies less likely to hire you. I listened to women tell me their stories of harassment, the ways they had to endure leering, suggestive language, etc. as the price of trying to make a living. I looked at my peers in academia, and we all looked the same, talked the same, shared worldviews.

Hopefully, my point is clear. There are many people who are disadvantaged in life through no fault of their own. Sometimes these people get sick or lose their job, not because they did anything wrong, but because they were unlucky. They may lack the support structure that you or I take for granted. I’ve had so many students tell me stories like this. They have no one to help them. No one. If something goes wrong, they are doomed without help. If they make a mistake, they are condemned for it. In many cases, even if they do everything right and earn a degree, they may be unable to find a job in today’s world. I’m not talking about people who got degrees in things you think are worthless. I’m talking about geologists, psychologists, business students….doesn’t matter.

Sometimes people need help to get back on their feet. Social safety nets provide that help. Can they be abused? Yes, of course! And we should limit that abuse. But study after study suggests that welfare fraud isn’t that common and doesn’t cost that much. I’m willing to accept this as the cost of such systems, in the same way I accept that the taxes I pay so kids can go to school will often be misused. It’s worth it to have a system in place that can help the people that really need it.

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