Monday, December 16, 2013

U.S. Sociologist: The Arc of Policy is Long but Bends Toward Justice

In the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, Lane Kenworthy writes:
Too many Americans have incomes so low that they struggle to make ends meet: among the 25 millions households in the bottom firth on the income ladder, average income is just $18,000 a year. Too many Americans experience sizeable income declines: each year, about one in seven U.S. households suffers a drop in annual income of 25 percent or more. Too many Americans have no health insurance: even when Obamacare is fully implemented, between five and ten percent of U.S. citizens still won't have coverage, a far higher share than in any other rich nation. Finally too many Americans will soon reach retirement age with little savings and inadequate pensions: average household savings as a share of disposable household income fell from ten percent during the 1970's to just three percent during the first decade of this century, many employees with defined-contribution pensions plans contribute very little to them or cash them in early, and the bursting of the housing bubble depleted the sole asset of many middle-class homeowners.....(Also)....
According to calculations by the Congressional Budget Office that account for inflation, the average income for households in the top one percent soared from $350,000 in 1979 to $1.3 million in 2007. For the bottom 60 percent, the rise was quite modest: from $30,000 to $37,000.
Kenworthy's essay, however, sends a clear message to the right, that while they are opposing measures that would reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, they are on the wrong side of American history, a history which he says has been consistently, if slowly, bent toward enhanced justice, security and support for all.
Describing what social scientists call "social policy" as "public insurance," Kenworthy writes:
Social Security and Medicare insure individuals against the risk of having little or no money after they retire. Unemployment compensation insures individuals against the risk of losing their jobs. Disability payment programs insure against the risk of individuals' suffering physical' mental, or psychological conditions that render them unable to earn a living.
Other U.S. public services and benefits are also insurance programs, even if people don't usually think of them that way. Public schools insure against the risk that private schools will be unavailable, to expensive, or of low quality. Retraining and job-placement programs insure against the risk that market conditions will make it difficult to find employment. The Earned Income Tax Credit insures against the risk that one's job will pay less than what is necessary for a minimally decent standard of living. Social assistance programs, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, insure against the risk of being unable to get a job but ineligible for unemployment or disability compensation.
Kenworthy's historic insights and pragmatic recommendations for an enhanced social safety net are refreshing at a time when much of the public debate coming from the Tea Party has focused on smaller government and thereby fewer insurances against the kind of inevitable risk that besets all economies in the twenty-first century, when jobs come and go, industries come and go, even towns a cities come and eventually go, as if the boom-and-bust roller-coaster has become the "norm".
It is precisely the kind of argument that Kenworthy makes that will give heart to the many sceptics who fear that the long line of American history in support of increased social security when economic wealth permits those advances for those in need, will fade into oblivion and go the way of the do-do bird.
(Lane Kenworthy is  Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona. His essay in Foreign Affairs is adapted from his more recent book, Social Democratic America (Oxford University Press, 2014)

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