Robert J. Samuelson: Stop pretending U.S. welfare state doesn't exist

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Second, it undermines work incentives. This, too, is occurring. Social Security's eligibility ages influence retirement. If eligibility were higher, people would work longer. Eberstadt thinks that relaxed disability requirements have lowered work effort. In 2011, about 4.5 percent of working-age adults (20-64) received Social Security disability benefits, up from 1.3 percent in 1970.

Finally, there's a moral cost. It encourages "gaming" the system to maximize benefits. It devalues the ethic of "earned success." There's tension between helping the truly needy and fostering dependence on government and helplessness.

The welfare state's great contradiction — the reason its politics are so messy — is that what seems good for the individual is not, when multiplied by thousands or millions of cases, always good for society. Politicians appeal to individuals who vote, but in doing so may shortchange the nation. Most obviously: The welfare state's costs may depress economic growth.

The need is not to dismantle the welfare state but to modernize it gradually, preserving its virtues, minimizing its vices and not doing it abruptly so as to derail the recovery. But first we need to admit it exists.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.

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