Archives for posts with tag: social protection floor

Some recent findings on Americans views toward public benefit programs (from a paper written by Bruce Stokes at the Pew Research Center for the New America Foundation):

  • Three-fourths (75%) of Democrats believe that the government should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Similarly, 78% say basic food and shelter should be government guarantees and 65% think more support for the needy should be provided, even in the face of increased debt.
  • African Americans have consistently been more supportive of a government safety net than whites. More than three-quarters (78%) of blacks support government guarantees of food and shelter, compared with 52% of whites. Support also is high among Hispanics: 78% now agree that the government should guarantee people food and shelter.

One thought that comes to my mind with respect to these findings is how they might change if the question was posed differently. The survey asked participants whether they agreed with the statement that: “The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.” In my opinion, that wording is somewhat unfavorable, especially the use of the word ‘guarantee.’ I imagine that if the statement were more along the lines of, “The government should do everything within its power to beet basic nutritional and health needs of underprivileged Americans,” the response would have been different.


As might be expected, part of the explanation of these views comes from what’s characterized as Ameircan’s “rugged individualism.” “Roughly six in ten [Americans] reject the notion that outside forces determine success in life.” In contrast, “about seven in ten (72%) Germans, more than half (57%) of the French and nearly four in ten (41%) of the British see success determined by forces outside their influence.”

However, possibly in light of the recent Great Recession, Americans seem hesitant to blame individual economic failures entirely on lack of individual effort.  According to the report, “Less than one-in-five (18%) say those without work are responsible,” and “such sentiment is similar to that in Germany (25%) and Britain (22%).” How this rugged individualism can square away with unemployed individuals not being responsible for their own plight is beyond me.

All in all, the basic findings of the report seem to mostly confirm that Americans are (with some qualifications)  individualistic, and we exhibit a status quo bias. As Stokes puts it, although the US does not seem to support a robust expansion in the safety net, “Americans value the social safety net that exists and do not want it changed.” Then again, maybe if we re-framed these issues not as “guarantees” but as helping individuals meet their basic human needs so that they can survive, maybe we would find progress to be made yet.

Photo Credit: Tom Giebel

I read two articles recently that got me thinking about when exactly it is that individuals, as viewed by society, become “responsible” for their own outcomes, and when they are still viewed as deserving of equal opportunity. When children are born into environments that don’t provide them with resources they need to develop physically, mentally, or socially, we generally see this as unfair, because it’s not the child’s “fault” that she is not succeeding. Thus, this child is deserving of opportunity. At some point, though, an adult’s unemployment, sickness, and hunger is her own “fault,” as equal outcomes are not guaranteed for all across society (though maybe a basic social protection floor should be).

When does one cross this threshold? One answer, though by no means the only one, seems to be when a student enters college. Students in their first year if college are around 18 years old, a boundary for legal liability in many states, and – if they are lucky enough to be in college – have access to opportunities to advancement and stable employment that higher education is (at least traditionally thought to be) able to provide.


Not so fast, suggests articles from both Charlotte Leslie of the Guardian and Jason DeParle of the New York Times. Leslie writes that there is a tendency to assume that the answer to a lack of social mobility is to “ensure that students from a state-educated background have as good a chance of going on to higher education as their privately educated peers.” However, she goes on to cites research that shatters this “comfortable myth,” research that showed that even when students from state school did as well as those from private ones academically, they made less money and had significantly less access to professions. Why? because of less knowledge as to how to achieve their ambition, fewer soft skills, less access to useful networks (written about earlier in this post), and less work experience from work and internships.

Of course that gap only occurs when there is equal academic achievement in groups with differential access to resources growing up. DeParle’s piece chronicles the college experience of three youth in Galveston, Texas. “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer,” the article quotes, “the place where upward mobility gets started.” However, as the article illustrates, the economic, social, and cultural strains on these low-income youth make it significantly more difficult for them to succeed in college. Thus, the article suggests a much more bleak conclusion, namely that “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder.”

What these findings suggest to me is that it is increasingly difficult to draw a line after which the effects of an under-resourced background will cease to be felt. If someone attended a very poor high school, then simply placing them in college will not be enough. Individuals need social, economic, and health supports throughout their lives in order to thrive. For the most privileged amongst us, we receive that from our family, friends, social and professional networks. For the less privileged, it’s a struggle to keep up not only in their childhood or teenage years, but throughout the entire course of their lives.

Photo Credit: Walt Jabsco

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAQuick thought on Barney Frank’s exit interview on PBS’s Newshour last week. When asked why he wanted to join Congress in the first place, Frank responded that he wanted to make the U.S. “a fairer country…in the sense of people not going hungry and being deprived through no fault of their own, or even it was their fault, but not letting people sink to that level of misery.”

To me, outgoing Representative Frank makes a pretty basic point about how much we all want to take care of each other. Even if we think that it’s a particular individual’s “fault” that she hasn’t succeeded in life, is our societal response to just let her suffer as a consequence? I don’t think so, and instead believe that we want to ensure that everyone has some basic level of subsistence. By doing so, we can help others have a second chance at success, and more fundamentally, to prevent unnecessary “misery.”

Photo credit: mcmrbt