The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.
~ Helen Keller
When we talk about what is welfare most are talking about the more specific form of welfare that is government funded welfare. We’re also asking in a basic way how welfare works.
It is with this understanding that I want to address the importance of welfare in a modern and just democracy.
So what is welfare? There are many definitions and meanings of welfare but I want to give you perhaps my simple and easy to understand definition.
Welfare is a community’s collaborative support of offering the minimum comfort and needs necessary to function as a viable member of the community to those members who, without the communal support would be unable to enjoy a minimally functional existence.
Welfare takes many forms but it is basically providing assistance in a monetary or voucher based system so that those without means might enjoy basic food, clothing and shelter.
This is what social welfare is in a nutshell. Now understanding welfare is quite simple. We as a society have decided that the most vulnerable, those who are unemployed, ill, old or disabled should be offered a minimally comfortable existence as members of our society. But in order to do so we as a group need to subsidize or provide that minimal existence for those vulnerable members of our group.
This is a fair, just and equitable approach meeting the minimum needs of all members of our group or society.
It is founded on The Golden Rule – to do unto others as you would have them do to you – as well as based on most religious and moral teachings.
The problems that we encounter is that we cloud the issue with the straw men of welfare reform and welfare fraud.
The amount that governments spend on their welfare systems differs widely. For example, the US spends about 35% on their social programs while the Swedes, French and other Europeans spend around the same.
Now this might seem like a lot of money but this incorporates ALL social programs which include education, healthcare, social insurance (includes employment insurance, old age pensions etc), food assistance and housing.
Now if this seems to be going up then the problem is not that there are more “deadbeats” or folks abusing welfare but that the society is becoming more unjust.
This is especially true of the US. The US has one of the greatest income disparities in the developed world and yet they only spend around 11% of its GDP on programs that make use of income redistribution. This contrasts starkly with many European countries where around 19% of GDP is spent on subsidies and transfers for the same purposes.
The US has amongst the worst welfare programs in the developed world. General welfare is made up of 2 major programs the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income). SSI is basically only for the ages – currently 65+ – or the blind and otherwise disabled.
My problem with welfare reform and the cries of welfare fraud is that they are largely exaggerated.
Yes, a small minority of folks on public assistance don’t need to be there and perhaps are in fact trying to milk the system for what it is worth.
But really, no one is going to get rich on welfare. So what if a few people are making use of welfare who should and could be working. Our society needs to focus on building better jobs to incentivize people to choose work over a minimum poverty based welfare wage.
But because we believe in capitalism and the pursuit of wealth, we consider those folks who don’t work to be lazy and parasitic. This is both unkind and unfair.
Rather, we should be building a world where we value self discovery, contribution and the pursuit of human betterment as our goals rather than the pursuit of wealth and materialism.
Such as world, which is often shown in Star Trek, would be a world where folks could and would be incentivized to contribute their gifts and skills to the greater good and growth of the society. The alternative is having folks forced to work as Wal Mart greeters and then pretend that welfare reform is working when in fact you’re just kicking people off those programs and into meaningless, menial and dead end jobs.
What kind of a life lived is that? I’d rather choose a society that offers a reasonable welfare program with incentives for members to explore self development and contribution to the greater good regardless of whether that leads to more wealth and materialism.