In the ongoing debate about reducing the deficit and bending the curve on the national debt, attention will have to be paid to the effectiveness of the safety net that a series of social programs have knitted underneath our social structure to prevent our poorest and weakest from getting lost in the shuffle.
Nobody can argue in good conscience that the richest country in the world cannot afford to take care of those who are incapable of taking care of themselves. If only we can find out without ambiguity who is deserving of being saved by the safety net.
We have a Rubik’s cube of complexity. On one side of the cube we have a plethora of programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food-stamps, welfare, disability, unemployment, you name it. On the other side of the cube you have the authority in charge, the Federal Government with several services like the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, HUD, the Labor Department, the Department of Agriculture; the State, the County, the town, the church. At the bottom you have the conditions requiring the application of the safety net, old age, young age, disability, veteran, unemployment, poverty, homelessness or disaster. Finally at the top of the cube you have the parameters within which the law offers assistance, which can be limited in time, by financial resources available to the applicant or by the degree of seriousness of the conditions requiring the application of the safety net.
To add to the complexity, virtually every aspect of this Rubik’s cube is subject to constant change.
In addition, the money involved in the payout of the safety-net programs is so huge (hundreds of billions per year) that it attracts fraud of all kinds, including fraud perpetrated by highly sophisticated criminal syndicates.
Where is the bureaucracy with the capability and the motivation to manage this complexity for tens of millions of citizens and residents with the result that only the deserving get the benefits and only for as long as they need them?
In a very different time, now forever gone, we had communities. In most instances the churches were the focal points of these communities and they provided the only safety net available. It was a time where we were aware of how our neighbors were faring and who needed help. The problem at the time was that resources were scarce and the distribution of assistance subject to biases and prejudices.
Today these social controls have entirely evaporated. We have to take people at their word and there is no bureaucracy in the world that can consistently apply the appropriate standards to tidal waves of applications and verify. This would be difficult under static circumstances, it is virtually impossible under fast changing conditions for the applicants and beneficiaries.
Case in point is the shift from welfare payments to disability payments. Since the Clinton Welfare Reform the number of families on welfare has declined from 5 million to less than 2 million. But at the same time, the number of low income people on disability has risen from 5 million to 7 million.
Have you ever dealt with the government? Whether it is with the Motor vehicle Department, the IRS, the INS, the Post Office or the Social Security service, the bell curve is in full force and effect: the government employs a small percentage of conscientious, competent and motivated workers; a large percentage of fair to average workers; and a significant percentage of incompetent, de-motivated workers. That is the force that has to solve the Rubik’s cube!
The safety net is failing. It is failing the people it is supposed to protect and it is failing the tax payer.
Good governance requires that public funds are spent wisely and only on legitimate public causes.
Is there any chance that this reasonable requirement can be met?
No sure thing, but it will have to be tried. It will be a test of our constitutional democracy to see if it can forge fundamental changes in the way it operates.
Steps to consider to reconstruct the safety net and make sure it serves only the truly needy:
- Centralization of all programs other than Social Security, Veterans Administration and Disaster Relief at the State level
- Create a cadre of highly trained and equipped force to manage all aspects of the safety net
- Use technology to eliminate identity based fraud
- Compel recipients of any type of government assistance to file a semi-annual census of their need for assistance including their financial condition
- Diligent law enforcement and heavy penalties (including forfeiture of all future benefits) for fraud and abuse
America has the financial wherewithal to protect its truly needed from the vagaries of life. But it cannot afford, for moral and fiscal reasons, to not administer the assistance with targeted precision.