Welfare State to Opportunity Society

February 7, 2013 09:49

[O]ur modern, cradle-to-grave welfare state is structured in such a way that it hinders rather than boosts upward mobility.



By Matthew Spalding, Ph.D. at Heritage Foundation


“I must go to college!” insists eight-year-old Pierre William.

Such planning may seem unusual in a second grader. But Pierre is lucky. He’s attending a private school in the District of Columbia using funds from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. That’s opened his eyes to the possibilities that only a college education can provide.

His mother Patricia William says the program has taught her how to be a better parent and to be involved in her children’s education. She insists she’ll remain involved. “I try to stay focused and not get discouraged,” William says. That matters for her children, and the other 1,600 benefiting from the scholarships.

This is just one American Dream—Pierre’s dream. But every American should have the opportunity to pursue his own dream. This week, we are highlighting America’s Opportunity for All, The Heritage Foundation’s plan to help people secure these dreams.

Yet our modern, cradle-to-grave welfare state is structured in such a way that it hinders rather than boosts upward mobility. Despite a massive array of programs and colossal budgets, poverty rates remain high, our public education system is failing us, and the family—whose importance for the future well-being of children cannot be overstated—is falling apart among poor and low-income Americans.

President Obama made clear yesterday that he is more interested in additional tax increases than serious entitlement reforms. At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting that health care entitlement spending will be bigger than defense or even Social Security spending in just two years.

For some, the entitlement mentality of the welfare state breeds a culture of dependency. Conservatives propose a different approach, one based on empowering all Americans. We intend to encourage upward mobility for poor and low-income Americans. We intend to strengthen an anxious middle class. We intend to reduce concerns about health care and retirement security. And we intend to protect those throughout society who have earned success for themselves and their families.

For those who cannot care for themselves or who get knocked down from time to time, we believe in a society that provides a basic, temporary safety net formed with the active involvement and leadership of their fellow citizens, supplemented with public assistance at the appropriate level of government.

But in the end, we must restructure the welfare state to secure basic commitments, introduce private choice and market incentives for success, and focus on upward mobility.

America’s Opportunity is our plan to:

  • End Obamacare and, instead, provide real health care solutions. Obamacare represents a huge step in the wrong direction. Instead, policymakers should restructure the tax treatment of health insurance to encourage competition and drive down costs.
  • Preserve Social Security as real insurance. President Obama spoke yesterday of a plan to balance the budget through “a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform.” But the real key to reducing future deficits is to reform Social Security so it becomes a true insurance program, guaranteeing that no senior citizen need fall into poverty, but not providing automatic benefits to wealthier retirees.
  • Make welfare work for the poor. The federal government spends nearly a trillion dollars each year on welfare. Yet the system isn’t working. True welfare reform should include strong work requirements, should promote marriage, and should use loans—not grants—to help needy Americans.
  • Improve education by expanding options. Washington should issue fewer mandates and encourage more experimentation by states and local school districts. Also, policymakers should allow federal funding to follow a student to the school of the family’s choice.
  • Strengthen immigration through common-sense reform. By attempting to pass “comprehensive” reform, Congress is setting itself up to fail. Instead, lawmakers should reform our legal immigration system and make it easier to work legally and temporarily in the U.S. They should also encourage high-skill immigration. And to be fair, the Administration should commit to enforcing existing immigration laws.
  • Revitalize marriage, family and civil society. These institutions are the building blocks of a healthy society. Social science proves that the intact married-parent family—husband, wife, and children living together—is the best setting for the optimal development of the child and provides the best insurance for the future welfare of the nation.

America’s Opportunity for All relies on the premise that everyone must be free to vigorously pursue his or her own American Dream. Together, we can break the cycle of dependency, encourage upward mobility, and promote economic freedom for all.

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Heritage’s vice president for American Studies and director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.

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