Social policy questions present Americans with a cruel dilemma. From practical experience most of us realize that we are likely to confront certain hazards, such as illness or aging, against which private personal resources are an inadequate defense. Thus it is generally clear that the conditions of contemporary life necessitate some forms of public social programs. Yet when we think abstractly about the appropriate nature of public institutions, concepts like individualism and self-reliance seem to undermine the legitimacy of extensive public programs aimed at insulating vulnerable citizens from threatening contingencies.
This dilemma takes particularly severe forms in discussions of extensive public programs for the poor. In such instances, hesitancy based on abstract principles is reinforced by skepticism about the legitimacy of the needs these recipients evince. An excellent statement of this skepticism is provided by Charles Murray in Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 (Basic Books, 1984). Life is tough, Murray asserts, and the characteristics that people need to successfully cope with adversity—discipline and morality—must be carefully taught and nurtured. Most importantly, Murray argues that the social programs developed from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s provided few incentives for recipients to work hard or otherwise act responsibly. Instead, these programs exacerbated the plight of the poor by creating disincentives for responsible activity.
For Murray the destructive consequences of recent social programs are both material and moral. Whether the poor are materi-
ally better or worse off as a result of these programs is a hotly contested matter, and one I will leave to others. Regardless of Murray's accuracy on the material consequences, he gives eloquent voice to the value concerns that public social provision is apt to engender in American political culture. To the degree that social programs carry the message—to the poor or to society generally—that impoverished citizens bear little or no responsibility for their predicaments, they carry a message at odds with some of the most cherished values of American political culture, beliefs in extensive if not equal opportunity and in human dignity through disciplined self-reliance. These conflicting messages, of course, sometimes accurately describe life situations: a child born into a severely impoverished household bears no responsibility for this event. In such cases American beliefs about opportunity are apt to be stretched to their limits, if they are applicable at all.
But Murray strikes home when he argues that the notion that people are not responsible for all that happens to them can be subtly transformed into the proposition that the poor are to be relieved from the arduous tasks involved in alleviating their conditions. Since the mid-1960s, he charges, the designers of American social programs have been too unwilling to insist on conscientious effort from poor persons in school classrooms, in families, on the streets, and in the labor market. In the related terms of Lawrence Mead, the practices of American public social provision have been too permissive.
I do not share Murray or Mead's views on many matters, but I nonetheless suspect that they are correct on this point. Recent social programs—especially those focused on the poor—have been disinclined to elicit levels of personal responsibility from program recipients similar to those valued in the culture generally. As a consequence, we have on one hand a clear and widely recognized need for public social programs, and we have on the other widespread dissatisfaction with the ways we now go about some aspects of public social provision.
My purpose in this book is to suggest a way of escaping, or at least reducing, the problems of this dilemma by tailoring public social programs to prominent values of American political culture. Most of the ideas that I apply to the plight of victims of various social hazards are not new in and of themselves—as Richard Burn
noted two hundred years ago, "Almost every proposal which hath been made for the reformation of the poor laws hath been tried in former ages and found ineffectual." My desired contribution lies rather in the arrangement of somewhat familiar ideas into a package that emphasizes certain implications largely ignored by other analysts. It is widely argued, for instance, that the United States represents a less encouraging environment for social programs than do many other advanced industrial societies. Apart from public education, whose special status I will discuss later, American performance with respect to social programs has been aptly characterized as "laggard." Whether we consider the range of programs introduced or the proportion of gross national product spent on such programs, the United States trails many other advanced societies.
Throughout various explanations of American hesitancy with respect to social programs, two broad factors are frequently mentioned. First, some scholars hold that the values central to American political culture differ from those prevailing in some other advanced societies and are less supportive of social programs. The precise nature of these differences is disputed, but the attitudes of American elites are distinct from those of elites in other advanced societies. Second, most analysts agree that the highly decentralized character of American political structures hampers the development of programs opposed by specific interests. The federal government, split among branches, finds coordinated action difficult. State and local governments are, through federalism, unusually active. And American political parties are weak, while interest groups are exceptionally diverse and unrestrained. Thus, all in all, central direction is difficult, and veto points are common and easily used. Programs that affect narrow groups, however, tend to slip through this structure more easily than social programs affecting broad segments of the population. This is particularly the case when the groups are well financed and organized and can draw on spokespersons exhibiting expertise and social position. In such an unsupportive environment we might reasonably expect that both successful strategies for developing social programs and appropriate program design features would differ from their counterparts in other advanced societies.
These difficulties notwithstanding, one American social pro-
gram is well developed even by the standards of other advanced societies. In 1986 social security spending on pensions for the elderly, survivors, and disabled persons was $194 billion, 20 percent of the federal budget or about 5 percent of the gross national product (GNP). The national commitment to social security illustrates that Americans are willing to support social programs that respect prevailing values; it also exemplifies the pliable nature of American core values and the capacity of American political institutions, even in the realm of social policy, to adapt to changing conditions.
My thesis runs as follows: The development of social programs in America has been and will probably continue to be difficult, but social programs that fit nicely with the political culture are more likely to be successful than those that fit poorly. As the astute program executives of social security saw, one way to achieve an acceptable fit is to distribute program benefits in accordance with individual investments, that is, benefits are earned through the exertion of constructive effort and stored as effort-related credits in individual accounts. In enunciating this investments model, the architects of social security couched the program in innovative nuances of familiar American values. They well understood the value of creating a public image—in some respects a mythology—that avoided associations with socialism or the welfare state. In so doing, they largely succeeded in creating a new form of public policy, one that has brought respectability to at least a segment of American social provision.
Today the investments theme is an established principle of American political culture. As such, it could be explicitly extended to a broader range of episodic problems. Moreover, the design features of social security could be adapted for the development of social merging programs directed at reducing poverty. Rather than imposing particular activities on the recipients of public assistance (workfare), social merging programs could offer benefits that would facilitate and supplement recipients' concurrent efforts at self-support. By linking benefits to the recipients' efforts, social merging programs could both supplant most current public assistance programs and dispel popular perceptions of recipients as people who are getting something for nothing. It is imperative that we take advantage of these opportunities for constructive emulation.
For, while public social provision is a necessary accoutrement of advanced industrial societies, much contemporary American social program practice is markedly and needlessly at odds with important values of American political culture.
In developing my investments model, I use the language of rights—socioeconomic rights—rather than refer to socialism or the welfare state. Some people may question the appropriateness of discussing programs generally associated with the political left in terms of rights of any kind. The reservation runs that those on the left wave the term rights for rhetorical purposes but do not respect rights as ideals to be upheld in crucial situations. But I have no hesitancy in linking individual rights to social programs. As I will argue in part 1, socioeconomic rights are the most recent of several steps in the extension of the Anglo-American tradition of individual rights. The types of rights encompassed by this tradition have grown over the last three centuries, and different types of rights are not completely compatible. But socioeconomic rights, as we shall see, do not break new ground in this respect. And if my thesis is correct, efforts to minimize the distance between socioeconomic rights and American core values are essential to the full realization of the rights in question.
My argument thus begins with an examination of the status of socioeconomic rights with respect to American values. The central question here is, To what degree is meeting the basic needs addressed by socioeconomic rights through such rights compatible with American values? In chapters 1 through 4, I develop a cautiously optimistic response to this question.
On this foundation, I establish in part 2 of this book what I call the investments approach to social programs. The central question here is, How can American social programs be designed to better serve both basic human needs (thereby realizing socioeconomic rights) and other values of American political culture (thereby acquiring greater political viability)? Following the example of Alexander George's work with focused comparison, I present limited case studies of three programs: social security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and Medicare. These three programs highlight distinctive features of exceptional importance: social security illustrates a limited but generally encouraging example of the investments approach; AFDC exemplifies a disturbing program
that fits neither American values nor the needs of its beneficiaries; and Medicare turns our attention to the special problems private providers create. Each program is examined in terms of a standard series of questions developed in part 1, with particular attention on the implications of current practice for tailoring revitalized programs to American values.
With respect to the scope of this study, four points deserve emphasis here. First, while I sometimes draw on the experiences of other nations, this is not a comparative study. Other advanced industrial societies have broader experience with social programs, and surely we could learn something from their experience. But the United States is widely regarded as exceptional, and what works elsewhere may not work here. The converse is true as well, and my analysis, directed at the peculiarities of the American situation, is not intended as applicable to or appropriate for advanced societies generally.
Second, I restrict my analysis to income earning and income maintenance with a secondary focus on medical-care provision that enables me to contrast the easier tasks of transfer payments with the less enviable trials of providing for unpredictable and expensive social services. In passing, I point out several implications of my arguments for housing and education programs, but neither these nor the provision of transportation or legal services are addressed by my policy recommendations. Of course, social policy inevitably creates problems of "harmonization" with other policy areas, and several such issues arise as prominent concerns in later chapters.
Third, I want to point out how recent American social policy innovations relate to my own thinking. Limiting the out-of-pocket expenses of Medicare patients through catastrophic medical-care insurance is consistent with the spirit of my proposals on medical care in chapter 8 although the Medicare measure affects a relatively small proportion of the population. In contrast, the welfare reform measure signed by President Reagan in October 1988 does not represent a sharp change from current practice and is insufficiently bold to break the grip of the problems I discuss in chapter 6.
Fourth, I cannot but acknowledge that even if basic needs receive the more thorough and effective public support that I recommend, socioeconomic inequities will persist. A more equitable dis-
tribution of the material resources required to satisfy basic needs would diminish the suffering, deprivation, and anxiety many Americans experience when disturbing contingencies befall them. But much unfairness about the organization of work will remain, and dreary jobs will not be transformed into meaningful work. These obvious difficulties will not vanish; nor will the "hidden injuries of class" by which many burdens of failure are carried by the children of the poor.