Breaking Down Without a Spare

America’s lopsided welfare system of counterproductive public assistance

Scott Santens
Oct 13, 2014 · 17 min read

The Parable

Let’s imagine we’re in a car together on a road trip. We’re on our way to visit your family. We’d have actually preferred to fly, but that route wasn’t in the budget, which is very limited. Times have been tough lately. Sometimes it feels like the economy is only working for everyone else. Fortunately, we have just enough gas money to get us to our destination.

“Isn’t there a better way than this?”

The Reality

The above parable is of course fictional, but the reality it represents is unfortunately not.

Read the full CBPP report:
Read the full Pew report:

Money can be exchanged for anything. Everything else has limits.

4. Finally, the worst part of all about our current flawed welfare system is the welfare trap it creates by pulling assistance away with increased earnings from labor market income. This loss of benefits can be so extreme so as to result in “welfare cliffs”.

“A system that works against the system’s own interests… it’s just so counterproductive.”

Our current system is not productive. It is not the fully functional safety net we need, especially as technology increasingly disrupts our day to day lives. If one day we can be a driver for Uber, and the next day Uber can buy a fleet of self-driving cars and fire all of us, that’s a world where we need a real safety net that doesn’t just drop away. We need more than a safety net. We need a floor set above the poverty level, so that regardless of any amount of disruption, we are still allowed to stand on our own two feet and start climbing again.

Don’t catch us and trap us with nets. We need a solid foundation that allows all of us a space in which to build our futures.

We also need to understand that those at the bottom aren’t the only ones receiving welfare. There exists a great deal of netting underneath the feet of all of us. We just don’t see it. It is the invisible safety net, lacking in any stigma.

“…the U.S. Government spent $24 billion on public housing and rental subsidies for the poor. But in that same year, it spent $72 billion in home ownership subsidies for the middle classes and the wealthy.”

Welfare for the Wealthier

Read the report:

Driving on Spares

It may have seemed a small detail and one possibly gone unnoticed, but it’s possibly the most important detail of all in our automotive parable.

“Unfortunately there’s no spare. We had no choice but to drive on it.”

It’s not that we made the unwise choice to go driving around without a spare tire. It’s that we could not make the wise choice, because our car had already suffered a previous blown tire and there was no money in the budget for a new one. After replacing our blown tire with our spare tire, we could only hope nothing else would happen until there was money for a new tire.

This is what it looks like for a country to be driving on its spare tire.

As citizens, we are doing everything we can. Some of us are even tragically dying in our attempts to struggle on, while over 10,000 others have already grown too tired of the struggle to even continue living. As long as wages continue to not rise, and as long as jobs continue to be eliminated due to advances in technology, we have nowhere else to turn but our own safety nets. It is for this reason, it will only become ever more increasingly important for us to look with open eyes and minds at our system of public assistance and how it functions for all of us, poor and rich alike.

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