Medical Tuesday Blog
Entitlement dependency delivers a heavy blow against success.
ENTITLEMENTS AND EXCEPTIONALISM
American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State (Part V continued from April, May, June, July)
Changes in popular mores and norms are less easily and precisely tracked than changes in behavior, but here as well modern America has witnessed immense shifts under the shadow of the entitlement state. Difficult as these shifts may be to quantify, we may nevertheless dare to identify, and at least impressionistically describe, some of the ways the entitlements revolution may be shaping the contemporary American mind and fundamentally changing the American character.
To begin, the rise of long-term entitlement dependence — with the concomitant “mainstreaming” of inter-generational welfare de-pendence — self-evidently delivers a heavy blow against general belief in the notion that everyone can succeed in America, no matter their station at birth. Perhaps less obvious is what increasing acceptance of entitlements means for American exceptionalism. The burning personal ambition and hunger for success that both domestic and foreign observers have long taken to be distinctively American traits are being undermined and supplanted by the character challenges posed by the entitlement state. The incentive structure of our means-based welfare state invites citizens to accept benefits by showing need, making the criterion for receiving grants demonstrated personal or familial financial failure, which used to be a source of shame.
Unlike all American governance before it, our new means-tested arrangements enforce a poverty policy that must function as blind to any broad differentiation between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. That basic Puritan conception is dying today in America, except perhaps in the circles and reaches where it was already dead. More broadly, the politics surrounding the entitlement system tends to undermine — by and large deliberately — the legitimacy of utilizing stigma and opprobrium to condition the behavior of beneficiaries, even when the behavior in question is irresponsible or plainly destructive. For a growing number of Americans, especially younger Americans, the very notion of “shaming” entitlement recipients for their personal behavior is regarded as completely inappropriate, if not offensive. This is a strikingly new point of view in American political culture. A “judgment-free” attitude toward the official provision of social support, one that takes personal responsibility out of the discussion, marks a fundamental break with the past on this basic American precept about civic life and civic duty.
The entitlement state appears to be degrading standards of citizenship in other ways as well. For example, mass gaming of the welfare system appears to be a fact of modern American life. The country’s ballooning “disability” claims attest to this. Disability awards are a key source of financial support for non-working men now, and disability judgments also serve as a gateway to qualifying for a whole assortment of subsidiary welfare benefits. Successful claims by working-age adults against the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program rose almost six-fold between 1970 and 2012 — and that number does not include claims against other major government disability programs, such as SSI. There has never been a serious official effort to audit SSDI — or, for that matter, virtually any of the country’s current entitlement programs.
The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, “It cannot too often be stated that the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it, but what it costs those who receive it.” The full tally of those costs must now include the loss of public honesty occasioned by chronic deception to extract unwarranted entitlement benefits from our government — and by the tolerance of such deception by the family members and friends of those who commit it.
Finally, there is the relation between entitlements and the middle-class mentality. An important aspect of the American national myth is that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can gain entry to the country’s middle class, regardless of their income or background. Yet while low incomes, limited educational attainment, and other material constraints manifestly have not prevented successive generations of Americans from aspiring to the middle-class or even entering it, the same cannot be said of constraints emanating from the mind. Being part of the American middle class is not just an income distinction — it is a mentality, a self-conception. To be middle class is to be hard-working and self-sufficient, with self-respect rooted in providing a good life for oneself and one’s family. Can members in good standing of the American middle class really maintain that self-conception while simultaneously taking need-based government benefits that symbolically brand them and their family as wards of the state?
It is no secret that the American middle class is under great pressure these days. Most commentary and analysis on this question has focused on “structural,” material reasons for this phenomenon: globalization, the faltering American jobs machine, widening economic differences in society, difficulties in keeping up the pace of mobility, and many others. Conspicuously absent from this discussion have been the consequences of enrolling a sizable and still-growing share of the populace in welfare programs intended for the helpless and needy. With more than 35% of America receiving means-tested benefits, should it really be surprising that over a third of the country no longer considers itself “middle class”?
To be continued in September as THE END OF EXCEPTIONALISM
Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem. – Ronald Reagan
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