When my father was young, my grandfather was seriously injured in a ranch accident. He was unable to work for an extended time and was never able to return to his previous job. While he struggled to recover and find a new way to earn a living, a wife and four young children were left with very little support. The neighbors banded together to help, but their resources were limited.
The situation got steadily worse. A neighbor in town had a disused chicken coop with a standpipe for running water and for a time that became the family’s home. People occasionally brought food and helped out where they could.
They survived, deeply hungry and cold, thanks to their own hardscrabble efforts and the mercies of a community around them. However, the damage to the family in personal terms and in their future economic capacity was serious and sustained. The Panhandle winter they passed in a renovated chicken coop would echo in a thousand little ways.
I was a young teenager when my father was crushed by a forklift in his third major industrial injury. He lived, but he was unable to work for more than a year and unable to ever return to his previous duties. Neighbors were supportive, but their efforts do not explain why we retained our home, our security, and our dignity. This difficult incident did not destroy our family financially because a few things had changed since the Chicken Coop Winter.
Texas’ evolving workers compensation laws meant that Dad, unlike my grandfather, retained some income and access to health care while he recovered. We never needed welfare or food stamps because the middle class portions of the safety net worked for us. Our educations were not interrupted. As kids we hardly noticed a change apart from Dad being around a lot more. We retained the same landscape of options for our lives that we had before the accident.
Those contrasting stories demonstrate what effective social programs are meant to accomplish. In the conservative vision, best expressed by the late Jack Kemp, the primary purpose of the safety net is not to eliminate poverty, mandate better decisions, or create some utopia in which all human suffering disappears. We maintain government assistance programs in order to broaden the landscape of available choices.
Conservatives need to take a breath, prepare themselves, and repeat this sentence three times without puking – “social welfare programs can have positive effects.”
An improved workers compensation program gave my father a better range of choices than his father faced in the same situation. Those programs did not replace our individual responsibilities. They did not turn my family into “slaves to government.” They freed us to pursue our potential.
How Republicans managed in such a short time to travel from Jack Kemp’s enterprise zones and tenant ownership programs to Mitt Romney’s “47%”slander is a sad story of fear-based politics and Neo-Confederate nightmares. However, nothing keeps us from retracing our steps and recapturing that positive vision.
From public schools to tax policy, there is a massive political gap waiting to be exploited by a party willing to embrace a pragmatic, bottom-up approach to social welfare. Progressives still promote government intervention that effectively replaces individual initiative with the guidance of elite experts. Their top-down, intrusive solutions embrace what George Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and feeds endless bureaucratic expansion.
On the other hand, you have far-right conservatives who consider nearly everything government does to be “socialism.” The Dixiecratic refugees that have fled into the Republican Party will wreck the safety net if they get half a chance.
There is a growing consensus that neither extreme has it right. There is room in that emerging consensus for conservatives to choose a fresh approach.
Poverty is influenced by personal decisions, but not everyone has access to the same choices. One person may have to decide whether she’s willing work hard in school so that she’ll be prepared to take over the company from Dad. Another person may have to decide whether to resist the local gang that wants him to sell drugs.
Social welfare helps most when it expands, rather than replaces, personal options. Our safety net works best when we use public schools, welfare, food stamps, workers compensation, unemployment, a progressive income tax, and a hundred other public policy tools not to force people to make choices we find preferable, but to make a better range of choices available.
That doesn’t mean that every program will be geared to produce an entrepreneur. To be effective we have to acknowledge that the mentally ill, the addicted, the sick or elderly, those scarred by long years of abuse, and others may never take advantage of freer social mobility. Opening up the pathways of capital accumulation will not help them directly.
Everyone should be offered the potential to stand on their own, but there will be some among us who will not master the skills to function effectively. We should cooperate through government to provide for their survival and protect their basic human dignity.
There is no rational reason that conservatives should find themselves twisted into demonizing the unfortunate. The Republican Party is in a unique position, if it could exploit it, to turn the entire debate over poverty on its head and align itself solidly with urban voters and Hispanics. A healthy, effective Republican Party should be promoting the idea that the social safety net is a form of personal decision insurance. By cooperating through a representative government we are preserving our access to certain choices that could otherwise by yanked away by fate.
The fight over the New Deal has been over for decades. Conservatives need to get over it and play a role in shaping the future.