A Foundation, Not a Net

A good welfare state is more than just a safety net. It's a foundation on top of which people can build their lives.

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Safety net. Safety net. Safety net. It is apparently the only metaphor there is to describe the welfare state, at least in American political discourse. Every liberal politician, think tank, and pundit seems to never tire of the euphemism, even as it so readily avails itself to the equally obnoxious conservative metaphor of the welfare hammock.

Despite its popularity, the safety net metaphor has always struck me as confused at best and as indicative of bad welfare politics at worst. The message of the safety net is that we all need protection when we fall, which of course is true. But the role of a good welfare state is not just to protect against fluke catastrophes, and most welfare benefits are not even used for that purpose.

Old-age pensions, paid family leave, child care benefits, public health insurance, and education are not items provided to people in the depths of a life collapse. They are, in their ideal form, universal services for life events that basically everyone goes through. People intentionally have children, intentionally go to school, and intentionally live into retirement. These are positive experiences in themselves, and only become negative because of a bad welfare system.

Some benefits do genuinely track occurrences most would regard as inherently unfortunate, such as becoming disabled or becoming unemployed. But they are the exception, not the rule. And, in the case of unemployment, so many people separate from their job each year (42 percent in 2016) that it is really a much more universal experience than most realize.

Beyond its literal inaccuracy, the safety net metaphor also suffers rhetorically. It suggests that the normal state of affairs is for individuals and families to be sustained solely through market income and that those who cannot be so sustained have hit some sort of pitfall. This further suggests that there exists some conceivable state of affairs where welfare institutions are not needed because everything is running smoothly.

But this is a terrible story to tell about why welfare states are needed. It identifies the problem as being caused by bumps in the road, which conservatives often re-describe as personal failings, when the much better story of the welfare state locates the problem in the inherent defects of a capitalist economic order.

Under laissez-faire capitalism, income is only distributed to the factors of production, i.e. labor and capital. If you don’t own a whole bunch of capital or have the capacity and opportunity to work, capitalism has no use for you and would, left alone, starve you to death. The welfare state exists not because some people just randomly fall on hard times, but rather because capitalism has no way of getting huge numbers of people (around half of the population is not working at any given time) the income and services that they need.

A better metaphor, both in terms of accuracy and rhetoric, would be the foundation. The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives. It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe. The precise mix of welfare benefits individuals get will of course vary depending on what stage of life they are in, but the welfare state as a whole is there for them at all times, giving them the stability to do everything else they want to do with their lives.

The safety net metaphor is so ingrained at this point that I am sure it will continue on by its own momentum for the indefinite future. And that’s fine. Suboptimal phrases are not the biggest problems in the world. But even if the phrase remains, we should nonetheless oppose its most natural meaning.

The welfare state should not just be there for needy people when they fall through the cracks. It should be there for everyone all the time.