Is America finished with major expansions of the safety net?

That’s the message from Jim Kessler, endorsed here, here, and here. Kessler urges President Obama to say, in his State of the Union address, that “with the passage of health care reform, America’s 85-year quest to weave a strong safety net is now complete.”

We have a safety net, but I wouldn’t call it “strong” by 21st-century standards. Some elements that are inadequate or altogether absent:

The 2010 health care reform, even if fully implemented, likely will leave millions of Americans uninsured.

Early education (preschool, child care), beginning at age one, is a very good idea. Not all states have full-day kindergarten; few have preschool for four-year-olds; none have much in the way of public funding of education for kids age one to three.

Paid parental leave is available in only a few states and covers a relatively short period.

Sickness insurance: ditto.

Unemployment insurance covers too few of us.

Unemployment insurance should be supplemented by or folded into a new wage insurance program.

Social assistance benefits have been decreasing steadily over the past generation.

If markets are now structured in such a way as to severely limit real earnings growth for those in the bottom half of the distribution, we may need to massively expand the EITC.

We ought to do more for children, working-age adults, and elderly persons with assorted physical, cognitive, emotional, and social disabilities.

The aim is not, let me emphasize, to expand government for its own sake. Government should play an integral role in providing these supports and protections because they are underprovided by private markets, and because in some instances government can do so more efficiently than private actors.

9 thoughts on “Is America finished with major expansions of the safety net?

  1. Lane:

    I certainly agree that we would benefit from additional social investments beyond expanded health care access, and you’ve identified some important areas.

    I would raise two points:

    (1) There has been considerable progress in state-funded pre-k, although the glass is only about one-quarter full. According to the annual State Preschool Yearbook of the National Institute for Early Education Research, 38 states have some state-funded pre-k for 4 year olds, enrolling about 25% of all 4 year olds. Not all these programs are high-quality programs, but many are. The percentage of 4 year olds in state-funded preschool is up from 14% in 2002. This is significant progress. However, to get to universal pre-k, we probably would have to imitate the leading state of Oklahoma, which has over 70% of 4-year olds in state-funded pre-k. Combined with Head Start and privately funded pre-k, this gets us to universal access.

    (2) There is an issue with these initiatives as to which level of government either should be responsible for different social investments, or, from a practical political perspective, is more likely to make such investments. I suspect that the need to deal with rising health care costs, which even with good health care reforms is likely to consume a growing share of GDP, may politically constrain other major federal investments. There also are issues of some advantages to state and local flexibility and experimentation, although this depends on whether or not there is some national leadership to make sure these experiments at the state and local level are adequately evaluated. I discuss the merits of a federal vs. state role in pre-k in a recent post at my blog, at

    If state or local governments are going to need to make some of these investments, then there is the issue of whether such investments pay off from a state or local perspective. This is the issue considered in my recent book, “Investing in Kids: Early Childhood Programs and Local Economic Development”. The argument of the book is that state or local investments in high-quality early childhood programs do pay off for state and local economic development, even though there also are positive external spillovers on other local areas.

    Tim Bartik, Senior Economist, Upjohn Institute

  2. I swear waking up each morning seems to bring just more idiocy. This is what passes for serious policy debate? In what freakin reality are these people taking up space?

    I think a lot of people voted for Obama precisely because they were expecting a SOTU speech we here would pronounced strongly that the era of weakening the safety net and increasing economic hardship was over. We didn’t get that and worse we’re back to circular firing squad as each gasbag pundit seeks to sink this country even further into an economic churning that will make more Americans financially strapped, economically insecure, and politically fearful.

    While many would hesitate to call the recent health care reform much of a reform, it was the first piece of social legislation in a long time. To say we’re done is a little late. The U.S. ceased to expand its safety net 35 years ago. The fight, since at least the presence of that doddering fool Reagan appeared on the scene, was to put things into reverse and pare back the coverage of the safety net. How is this understanding MIA?

    Obama might as well exclaim that the U.S. has successfully whittled it’s safety net sufficiently for it to be the laughing stock of the developed world and inadequate enough to give most Americans that sturdy bridge to the 19th century.

  3. I strongly agree with your placement of early childhood education at the top of that list. The state of much of early childhood care is woefully inadequate, much more so than K-12 education. I believe we have much larger marginal gains to make for education outcomes by focusing efforts on universal access to high quality childcare compared to K-12 reform (not that they are mutually exclusive).

    In addition the availability of that care would be a huge boon for the career prospects of working mothers whether single or married.

  4. I’m struck by your disclaimer. Who are the ones who seek to expand government for its own sake?

    And how come this notion for announcing the completion of the modern American welfare state didn’t occur after the creation of probably the most ominous and wasteful piece of government expansion, the Department of Homeland Security?

    Now I know what Yosemite Sam feels like when the varmints get the advantage.

  5. Much of what you say is good; the exception is putting children as young as one or two years in daycare. These children will be best when left with their parents. Barely verbal babies being barely attended while they contract one ear infection after another is no substitute of a mother’s or father’s care.
    The policy that should be put into place is one in which parents can take a substantial amount of time off to be with their very young children.

  6. Let me give you 14 trillion reasons this will not happen. If you give me 12 months I will give you 15 1/2 trillion reasons why.

  7. You forgot about the ponies. Every child should have a pony, especially the little girls.

  8. The solution is a more modern and more effective version of Friedman’s Negative Income Tax.

    It is a Guaranteed Income for anyone who registers as wishing to work, and then auctioning off their man weeks to the highest bidder:

    This system will achieve zero unemployment and save us money in real terms without raising taxes and actually shrinking government.

  9. The purpose of govenment is to provide the protection and empowerment people need to pursue their happiness. Government provides these neccesities because private companies descriminate against people based on ethnic background, Income, education, religion, sexual orientation, etc.; the government provides these neccesities on a moral basis-without regard for the above. Efficency is important, but providing them equitably is why we entrust govenment vs profit making companies.

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