Complexity and Compliance
The implementation of basic socioeconomic rights in the United States would require intricate practical support. While such private initiatives as employer-sponsored pension plans have a role to play, public social programs lie at the heart of the matter. Here, two sets of issues seem particularly problematic in the American context: the complexities entailed by large-scale social action and the difficulties of motivating compliance from all parties.
Coping with Complexity
Three distinct problems deserve our attention: selected difficulties arising from the necessity for action, limits and related harmonization issues, and the conflicts between the centralized bureaucracy needed to administer public social programs and the American preference for limited and local government.
Pitfalls Associated with Complex Social Action
All large-scale efforts, public or private, must overcome institutional inertia, human fallibility, unanticipated changes in the social environment, and the like. While such problems are in no way peculiar to public social policy, their negative effects have had an exceptionally high political profile among these programs. One may explain this dissatisfaction by referring to Americans' general
skepticism about social programs or to Americans' frustration with these programs' failure to decisively eradicate poverty. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that public social programs have attracted exceptional attention for rather unexceptional difficulties in managing complexity.
To minimize both the actual difficulties and the perception of such difficulties, my proposals for social insurance and other programs stick fairly closely to activities that our country already engages in and does fairly well. Rather than suggesting that we emulate Western European nations that have well-developed repertoires of public decision-making and implementation strategies, my proposals play to our proven strengths. We have encouraging, albeit controversial and limited, experience with social insurance funded by personal contributions to individual accounts. We have as well a recent history of exceptionally heavy reliance on public assistance, though few are excited by its success. We have relatively modest experience with active labor-market efforts. Given our relatively narrow range of successful practical experience, to suggest programs that would require dramatically different or ambitious machinery would be to invite serious practical difficulties.
Limits and Harmonization Issues
All rights have limits. In the United States we have a good deal more experience analyzing the limits on First Amendment rights than we do with those on socioeconomic rights. We have seen the boundaries of protected speech vary over time, and we have argued over troublesome instances in which freedom to assemble threatens other liberties or civic values.
Placing limits on basic socioeconomic rights raises questions about the nature of human needs. A limit on the amount and type of food necessary to sustain an individual could be based on a physiological assessment, but food is a social good as well as a source of nutrients. Thus basic everyday needs are in part defined by conventional cultural patterns. In our country today a nutritionally sound diet that featured insects as the primary source of protein would not fulfill our sense of basic needs. Needs also have a way of expanding into wants, but there are no steadfast distinc-
tions between the two. For instance, are organ transplants or esoteric life-support systems needs or wants in our society?
Additionally, as William Leiss points out, needs become less coherent in the high-intensity market settings of contemporary advanced societies. We continually reinterpret our concepts of needs in light of market offerings. Further, he argues, in a consumer society people focus less attention on basic needs—food—than on distinguishing features of the commodities—ease of preparation. In combination, these two processes, the "fragmentation of needs" and the "dissolution of commodities," orient our needs toward what is available rather than what is customary or conventional.
Despite these problems, our federal government has devised income guidelines that delineate the boundaries of poverty. These boundaries have often been challenged, but disagreements will always exist over the limits of any right. Thus while socioeconomic rights raise difficult questions about limits, these problems are different only in degree, not in kind, from those raised by civil or political rights. Further, we do not need unanimous agreement about the limits of socioeconomic rights in order to realize some version of them. Public opinion surveys in all advanced industrial societies, including the United States, reveal disagreements on specific points but considerable support for the general principle of providing security from common social hazards through such rights.
Different types of costs are associated with low and high estimates of appropriate limits. Low estimates endanger the human dignity and social membership status of vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens, while high estimates demand more extensive resources and are more likely to overload the system and create inequities between recipients of public social provision and the lowest-paid self-supporting workers. At least in the short term there can be little doubt that if socioeconomic rights are to be politically acceptable in the United States, low estimates about the material limits of such rights are crucial. But benefits even more limited than current AFDC payments could contribute effectively to reasonable levels of household support if they were designed to supplement household efforts at self-support and if external conditions facilitated self-support.
A related matter involves harmonizing social program practices
with activities in other policy areas. In the United States we have tended to isolate social programs rather than integrate them into broader public policy. But were we to use more-aggressive labor-market tactics in conjunction with social programs, households could rely more on efforts at self-support and less on transfer payments. The most obvious harmonization problems relate to general macroeconomic goals, particularly levels of unemployment and inflation. We will return to these problems in chapters 5 and 6.
Preferences for Limited and Local Government
One element of Huntington's version of the American creed that I did not discuss in chapter 3 is the traditional American preference for limited and local government. As a practical matter, any conception of American socioeconomic rights would require substantial activity by the federal government. This necessity clashes with traditional Lockean preferences for limited government, yet no advanced society—the United States included—has been willing to ignore its most vulnerable citizens for the sake of Lockean ideals. Rather the controversy focuses on the nature of the specific proportions or mechanisms of public social programs. Even some prominent libertarians acknowledge the appropriateness of using public programs to help vulnerable people whose needs market activities fail to address.
In short, Americans prefer limited government, but this preference is generally wistful or abstract, rather than operational, and it does not inform everyday decisions. Indeed, in the absence of a powerful ideology and given the nation's transition from commercial capitalism to advanced industrial conditions, American wistfulness for limited government is anachronistic in practice.
Huntington also discusses Americans' preference for local government. Again, there is little doubt that this preference exists, as Tocqueville noted and other observers have since. Nevertheless, in a society in which centralization is the rule—big business, big labor, corporate agriculture, and big international adversaries—preferences for the predominance of local government are largely as wistful as the ones for limited government.
At various times regional groups have exerted considerable influence to ensure a local voice in the administration of public social programs. In response to regional officials' desires to retain certain features of existing local practice, both the unemployment and public assistance portions of the Social Security Act of 1935 allow for state-level variations. Under these provisions, progressive Wisconsinites retained more-generous unemployment insurance features, while southerners delayed making equal public assistance payments to blacks.
These precedents notwithstanding, there have been growing pressures for nationwide standardization in public social provision. Business groups, for example, favor standardization of the costs of employer contributions to ensure interstate competitiveness. And proponents of strong social programs see national standardization as both just and rational. Why, they ask, should recipients of a federal program like AFDC be subject to enormous variations in state-defined benefit levels? If program benefits sanctioned by positive law are rights or entitlements, then an individual's rights should not vary significantly as a result of place of residence. The growing scope of social security, a program with no regional variations, has probably also contributed to perceptions that regional variations in national social program benefits are undesirable. Finally, regional variation and local discretion have been criticized by some as leading to systematic waste, by others as a tool for discriminating against some potential recipients.
Finally, we must return again to the example of social security, a most highly centralized program that should have stirred the wrath of every American committed to limited and local government. Up until the politicization of the administration of social security in the 1970s, the program was widely regarded as exceptionally sound, fair, and efficient. Social security still enjoys great public confidence and support, even though it is intrusive (levying taxes on 90 percent of the labor force), large (consuming roughly 20 percent of the federal budget and 5 percent of GNP), highly centralized, and highly professionalized.
We should not use this example to advise public program planners to disregard the American preference for limited and local government. Social programs administered by sophisticated, cen-
tralized bureaucracies that allow little if any local discretion do pose some risks. But the histories of various American social programs suggest that these risks may be well worth taking, and that programs consonant with other American values will face less difficulty on this score.
Competing Interest Groups
Social programs, like other public policies, serve multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives, and conflicts among various groups seeking competing benefits from public social provision form another set of practical problems for the realization of socioeconomic rights.
At the top of any list of explicit objectives of public social provision would be helping the victims of social hazards; here the largest single constituency is the elderly. A related and frequently compatible objective of social programs lies in the contributions they make to macroeconomic policy. Since program benefits are usually spent or consumed directly and represent, to some degree, spending that would not otherwise occur, program expenditures encourage aggregate demand. If such demand stimulates employment without fueling inflation, then the national economy as a whole prospers, and both public officials and the public generally enjoy the fruits of prosperity.
From the standpoint of the wealthy and powerful the resources that public social programs provide are redundant, and elites have often fought the establishment or expansion of such programs. Nonetheless, the development of social programs can be interpreted as elite efforts to anticipate the problems of incorporating the working class into advanced societies. For political leaders such programs offer opportunities to achieve their own ends either by building societal support or minimally reducing opposition. Whether or not social program platforms are productive means of electoral competition, political elites have at times perceived them in this fashion. Particularly in the United States it is probably appropriate to link social insurance programs to schemes of electoral competition and public assistance programs to concerns for placating potentially disruptive social groups.
Under some circumstances the agendas of public elites and the needs of vulnerable citizens may overlap. For example, whichever political party increases pensions for the elderly may expect the votes of the elderly in the next election. But elite agendas, even when they call for social program development, may have objectives contrary to the interests of targeted recipients. For instance, Bismarck's pioneering social programs of the 1880s represented the carrot portion of a two-pronged strategy designed to reduce the political and economic influence of the left and to preserve the societal domination of a conservative state. Similarly, contemporary American public assistance programs have been accused of being covert efforts to maintain a potentially disruptive population in a minimal, depreciating fashion that neutralizes recipients' political energies.
Social programs also affect other particular groups: the public provision of medical care has increased the incomes of physicians and nursing homes; public housing programs benefit lending institutions, construction firms, landlords, and realtors; and public education benefits modern corporations and other employers with sophisticated personnel needs. Beneficiaries such as these generally have interests distinct from those of the explicitly-targeted recipients of public social programs, and the former are generally better-organized, better-financed, and more experienced in gaining access to public decision makers. Policies fashioned to fit the political objectives of such groups may serve socioeconomic rights only incidentally and poorly. However, social provision policies that ignore the ends of these groups will probably face stiff resistance and low levels of compliance. For this reason, respect for the values of powerful groups is an important consideration in social program development. Social programs mean socioeconomic rights to some, but they mean income, profits, election success, or social control to others whose cooperation is necessary.
Reaching Potential Recipients
The young and the elderly draw, in different ways, more heavily on social provision programs than do middle-aged citizens. Serving these groups presents a variety of practical problems, to be sure,
but these may be less serious than the difficulties of reaching potential recipients of the lowest socioeconomic status. The following generalizations may oversimplify a bit, but they suggest the kinds of practical problems that must be addressed.
First, the lower a potential recipient's socioeconomic status, the less likely he or she is to know what benefits are available and how to apply for them. Second, the more disadvantaged potential recipients tend to have poorer skills in dealing with the bureaucrats who serve as gatekeepers for social programs. Third, the wider the gap in socioeconomic status between the professionals who deliver social services and recipients, the more both groups are apt to experience anxiety and reluctance about contact. Fourth, persons in the lowest socioeconomic groups tend to be alienated by program features that represent the aspirations of mainstream culture but do not fit with their own experiences. Finally, people lowest in the socioeconomic hierarchy tend to have less personal control over certain aspects of their activities, including those that relate to the objectives of social programs. For instance, their health may be threatened by a variety of environmental factors at work or at home over which they have little control.
One implication of these generalizations is that programs designed to ameliorate social disadvantage face more demanding tasks than do social insurance programs that cover episodic hazards. A second implication is that public perceptions of a program's success are likely to be more negative if the socioeconomic status of recipients is relatively low. For instance, unemployment insurance—whatever its problems—has not been subject to the range and vehemence of criticism that AFDC—a form of unemployment support for the disadvantaged—has endured.
Some programs are also apt to face more difficulties in motivating recipient compliance. Compliance has been more of a problem in unemployment insurance programs than in pensions for the elderly. Murray's argument about the "unintended rewards" of unemployment benefits, the relief from drudgery that these benefits can bring, seems exaggerated. But the incentives to use social programs to escape the unpleasant rigors of the market probably increase as these rigors increase—generally as we move down the socioeconomic ladder.
Guidelines for Action
Together the difficulties described in this chapter suggest that there are clear limits on what government can successfully accomplish in the field of public social provision. There are some meritorious provision objectives that we cannot reasonably expect to fulfill. And expectations for the United States should probably be narrower than those for nations in which popular orientations toward government are more encouraging and public experiences in dealing with resource inadequacy problems are broader. In recognition of the particularities of the American case, I propose four simple guidelines for social programs designed to realize basic socioeconomic rights.
First, these social programs should not expect or require dramatic changes in the activities of any of the actors—public officials, private service providers, recipients, and so on. Realizing basic socioeconomic rights will require some important changes in existing American practice, and incremental changes are not necessarily more apt to succeed than sharp ones. Nonetheless, we can reasonably expect that, when a worker who has disciplined herself or himself to living within her or his income across a working life of four decades receives a pension, he or she will use the pension to support her or his needs responsibly in retirement. But asking for dramatic changes in recipients' activity may be asking for trouble, as we learn when the public schools try to educate a child whose home and peers provide little positive reinforcement for doing well in school. In general, we can expect better outcomes if public social policies do not require people to undertake new, complicated activities that are incompatible with their cultural traditions, preferred life choices, or professional norms.
Second, social programs that require less complicated cooperation from actors—recipients, and public facilitators, or private providers—are apt to be more effective than those requiring more. Disbursing pensions to the elderly, for example, is easier than delivering medical care to the poor in part because the former can be accomplished after a one-time enrollment on the pension distribution list, while the latter requires a series of cooperative endeavors: the sick must consult health-care professionals whenever ill-
ness strikes, these professionals must be willing to provide care, and the recipients must follow their advice. To the degree that complicated cooperation is unavoidable, there are some benefits to centralizing its management and oversight within sophisticated professional bureaucracies.
Third, social programs are apt to produce more encouraging results if their design allows recipients, facilitators, and providers to keep their social status and personal dignity intact. Both specific design features and the general character of a program's targeting and visibility are at issue. A program, such as AFDC, that in effect penalizes efforts at self-support even as American culture creates expectations of self-support is incoherent and stigmatizing. And while there are exceptions, such as veterans' benefits, for which narrow targeting works, generally the more universal program targeting becomes, the less stigmatizing recipient status is apt to be. Broadly targeted programs also tend to have a better public image because elites are less likely to build destructive features into programs that serve broad constituencies. Additionally, inclusive programs that address the most frequent social hazards facilitate public empathy with the plight of program beneficiaries. The visibility of programs, particularly their visibility as social programs, is relevant here as well. Neither suburban commuters who make daily use of interstate highways explicitly constructed for defense purposes nor wealthy citizens whose tax breaks are presented as necessary prerequisites to economic recovery are perceived, by themselves or generally, as recipients of "welfare."
Fourth, social programs are more likely to achieve their objectives if all parties see the program requirements as consistent with desirable prior or concurrent activity. In broad terms, recipients need to know that benefit rights are earned by prior or concurrent contributions, and providers must feel that the services they are delivering meet contemporary professional standards.
Unfortunately, these four guidelines cannot be applied with equal ease (or sometimes even at all) in every instance. Social insurance programs directed toward episodic disruptions of income hold the greatest potential for fitting fairly well with all four. Such programs do not by nature require extensive changes in recipient activity; complicated cooperation can usually be left to centralized state bureaucracies; and rights are earned through prior, respon-
sible activity that leaves the recipients' social status and self-respect unsullied. Programs that entail the delivery of social services run afoul, minimally, of the second guideline. They require complicated cooperation from both recipients and relatively autonomous service providers, and many of these complications cannot be centralized.
Programs directed at persistent resource inadequacy face more difficult problems still. Generally these programs serve recipients of low socioeconomic status, and if they try to comply with the first two guidelines, they run afoul of the second pair and vice versa. That is, if a program does not ask recipients to substantially change their activities, then the general public is not likely to view recipients as engaging in responsible behavior, and recipients' social status, if not self-respect, is apt to suffer. The AFDC program has tried to cope with this dilemma in a variety of ways, but with no great success to date. If a program takes the contrary tack, it may well run into the problems associated with expecting dramatic behavioral changes and introducing forms of complicated cooperation.
The more general point is that modern governments, which necessarily rely on the impersonal operations of bureaucracies, are better suited to working with people's aspirations, opportunities, and capacities—as social insurance objectives generally allow—than for changing these factors, as programs targeted at severely disadvantaged recipients sometimes attempt to do. Program recipients nestled within the mainstream culture can usually take effective advantage of social programs to accomplish some objective they value—medical care, education, income maintenance—and to accomplish it in a socially approved way. But people located on the margins of society have greater difficulties, both with the bureaucratic mechanisms and the program objectives. Programs designed to help these people enter the mainstream may require complicated changes in recipients' activities; narrow targeting tends to stigmatize recipients; and efforts to link benefits to activities approved of by the mainstream public may seem insulting or menacing to recipients.
Surely public programs can seek to ease the lives of socially disadvantaged citizens. But public efforts to "reform" the poor are frequently not necessary and, necessary or not, are only marginally
productive. Rather than imposing mainstream standards, public programs should try to work with whatever desires the disadvantaged have to merge with the socioeconomic mainstream by facilitating and supplementing their constructive efforts to do so. Little good can be expected of programs that force people into destitution in order to qualify for public social provision and that subsequently discourage their efforts at self-support.