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How to Clean Up the Welfare State

Public programs in the United States are narrow, stingy, and complicated, making them politically vulnerable. A new paper from Matt Bruenig’s People’s Policy Project instructs us how to broaden, simplify, and improve them — to create a welfare state for which Americans will be willing to fight.

People line up outside of the Social Security Administration office February 2, 2005 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

The American welfare state is under-loved. Our public assistance programs are vitally important to millions of people: each year poverty is two-thirds of what it would be if they weren’t in effect. But it isn’t the norm for politicians or media figures to treat the welfare state as sacrosanct, extolling its virtues and vowing to protect and expand it. Our leaders feel relatively free to trash public programs as failures and even promise to cut them.

Part of that comes down to the caliber of our politicians and media figures themselves, few of whom are genuine and reliable defenders of the working class. Replacing them with class allies is a heavy lift and a work in progress. In the meantime, it’s also true that an improved welfare state can make our public programs harder to ignore or vilify. If average people themselves harbor fond feelings about our welfare state, the media and politicians will need to adjust.

Unlike the welfare states of some social-democratic countries, ours doesn’t inspire a collective sense of pride and protectiveness. One reason is that it doesn’t actually scan as a single, cohesive welfare state at all. It’s a patchwork of different programs, some of which are widely liked and others of which are not.

The more people a public program covers (public schools, Medicare, Social Security) and the simpler it is, the more favorably it is viewed. But our country boasts relatively few of those universal or near-universal programs. Instead our welfare state is largely comprised of narrow, means-tested programs (Medicaid, public housing, food stamps) which cover only the poorest and are notoriously complicated to understand and use.

In order to instill in people the idea that the United States has a single thing called “a welfare state,” and that this welfare state is good and must be defended, the programs that comprise it should cover as many people as possible and be as simple and streamlined as possible. To that end, we’re fortunate that Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project has published a new paper called “Cleaning Up the Welfare State.”

Bruenig proposes changes to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Unemployment Insurance, and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). The purpose of each set of proposed reforms, he writes, is to “move towards a welfare state that is simpler, more coherent, and more centralized.” Under these reforms, our public programs would cover more people, be easier to navigate, and let fewer people fall through the cracks.

On Medicare, anyone familiar with Bruenig’s work knows that his preferred major reform would be to expand it to cover all people, i.e., Medicare for All. But while we should fight for a completely universal, single-payer health insurance system — and we’ll get to wage that fight on a large scale if Bernie Sanders is president — we can also imagine other ways to improve and expand Medicare. Among Bruenig’s ideas are extending Medicare benefits to people who are unemployed, getting rid of the two-year waiting period for people on disability, and eliminating the current work history requirement. “Taken together,” he writes, “these reforms would deliver a simplified Medicare plan to all elderly, disabled, and unemployed individuals that is not contingent on work history or subject to waiting periods.”

Bruenig also recommends that there be no income requirement for long-term support services. Anyone whose functional impairment qualifies them for long-term care should be able to receive it through Medicaid, no matter how much or how little money they make or have. Many of Bruenig’s reforms are like this: they eliminate cumbersome eligibility requirements, clear away red tape, and make it easier to both understand the programs and access their benefits.

The old-age pension, Bruenig writes, should be established at the one-person poverty line per state. This would make it possible to eliminate SSI for the elderly, since it would be redundant. The pension should kick in at the age of sixty-five, just like Medicare, making sixty-five the official full retirement age. These changes would “virtually eliminate elderly poverty while also greatly simplifying the old-age pension system.”

Bruenig also suggests we bring the disability payment up to the one-person poverty line, and eliminate the waiting period that people currently have to endure before they receive benefits. He adds that for “simplicity, fairness, and horizontal equity reasons, all families with severely disabled children should receive an allowance to help offset the financial costs associated with those disabilities.”

Simplicity, fairness, and equity are common motivators of Bruenig’s recommendations. For example, he also suggests we centralize the unemployment insurance system in the Social Security Administration and, again, raise the unemployment benefit to the one-person poverty line. SNAP, too, ought to be relocated to the Social Security Administration and transformed into a cash benefit to make it easier to use — and all eligibility requirements other than income should be eliminated to make it easier to get and keep.

Our welfare state is in perpetual peril. Republicans would like to eviscerate it, and Democrats have put up a feeble defense for decades. The overly complicated design of many of the programs — not only embraced but championed by Democrats, who have become addicted to means-testing, tax credits, and other complicated maneuvers — hasn’t helped matters. It has resulted in what some call a “submerged” welfare state, one that’s hard for the public to see and therefore to appreciate and defend.

Ultimately, we need to be building as many big, beautiful, universal programs as possible. They should be funded by each according to their ability in the form of taxes, and available to each according to their need in the form of necessary services. That’s our offense strategy. When it comes to our defense strategy, Bruenig has it right: our current welfare state must be brought into the light and dusted off for all to see. If it is hidden and neglected for too much longer, it will eventually be destroyed.