Education and the Welfare State

After listening to and reading many comments about the U.S. being an out of control welfare state, I realized I did not have a reasoned, empirical point of view on the matter and decided to begin examining the matter in light of public education.

According to Wikipedia, “a welfare state is a concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.”

The above description would appear to encompass the role of public education in the Twentieth Century, and for the children who live in affluent districts, public education may still be fulfilling the expectations of the welfare state. For millions of disadvantaged students—not so much.

Like many millions of Americans, I am descended from European immigrants who, looking for a better life, immigrated to our shores only to discover, in many cases, poverty rivaling or exceeding that which they had escaped. It was public education—an extension of the welfare state—that promoted “the economic and social well-being” of my grandparents by helping them become literate and by preparing them for the world of work. They benefited from “equality of opportunity,” and benefited from programs targeting “equitable distribution of wealth” during the Great Depression and the years that followed.

Without public education, my grandparents would have been “unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life,” i.e. if private schooling was the only option available to them, their families could not have afforded the cost of a private education, and all the benefits that accrued from being educated would be beyond their grasp.

Millions of us have benefited from the extension of the welfare state that is public education.

I have been reflecting upon criticism of the welfare state in the context of the above description and am left with these questions: If someone is diametrically opposed to the existence of a welfare state, does that person believe…

  • …government should not play a key role “in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens?”
  • …the role of government should not be “based on the principles of equality of opportunity or the equitable distribution of wealth?”
  • …there is no “public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life?”

The last bullet was once referred to as “paternalism,” a criticism to which Lester Frank Ward responded in 1895:

The charge of paternalism is chiefly made by the class that enjoys the largest share of government protection. Those who denounce it are those who most frequently and successfully invoke it. Nothing is more obvious today than the signal inability of capital and private enterprise to take care of themselves unaided by the state; and while they are incessantly denouncing “paternalism,” by which they mean the claim of the defenseless laborer and artisan to a share in this lavish state protection, they are all the while besieging legislatures for relief from their own incompetency, and “pleading the baby act” through a trained body of lawyers and lobbyists. The dispensing of national pap to this class should rather be called “maternalism,” to which a square, open, and dignified paternalism would be infinitely preferable.

It is interesting that the Father of the Welfare State in America (Ward) provides a description—now one-hundred-thirteen-years-old—that is a precise description of contemporary America.

Today, the “class that enjoys the largest share of government protection,” the class that is “incessantly denouncing paternalism,” is comprised of: (1) a class of mostly white men who belong to the 0.1% of the American population that controls 90% of America’s wealth, and (2) the newly-anointed persons that are corporations, which include banks, hedge funds and other large equity corporations, the oil and gas industry, and agri-business—to name a few.

One-hundred-thirteen-years-ago, Ward identified the wealthy as denouncing the “the claim of the defenseless laborer and artisan to a share in this lavish state protection.”  A few years ago, Fox News employed a segment-graphic of a hand bursting forth from the heartland, over which “ENTITLEMENT NATION” was emblazoned, which insinuated that the wealthy and advantaged leaders who utilize Fox News as a propaganda outlet—their media conduit to the hoi polloi—are still denouncing the claim of the “defenseless.”

Ward’s description of using “a trained body of lawyers and lobbyists” to dispense “national pap” to the wealthiest individuals and corporations by “besieging legislatures for relief from their own incompetency” rings as true today as it did over a century ago. Relief is often in the form of reduced taxes and increased subsidies, e.g. welfare for corporate entities. The resources for such relief have to come from other entities, such as funding for public education.

The very rich do not need public education. A large proportion of their children forsake public schools for private schools. Politicians who receive pap from the wealthy are strong advocates for choice and charter schools, which institutionalize the sense of privilege that the wealthy take for granted, leaving urban public schools as a proven “Port of Last Resort” for the most challenged of disadvantaged children.

My grandparents needed public education a century ago. Today’s disadvantaged children need high quality education more—not choice, not charters, but effective, research-driven, community schools that are accountable in meaningful ways to parents and citizens. All children—especially in a welfare state—should be entitled to such an education.

To me, perhaps the most ironic aspect of Fox News’ derogatory characterization of the “Entitlement Nation” is the demographic composition of Fox News’ viewers. According to The Atlantic, in 2015 over half of those viewers were 68 or older. I would be very surprised if the vast majority of them have not benefited in some way from public education. In addition, according to the Social Security Administration, 90% of Americans over 65 receive Social Security Benefits. In other words, approximately half of Fox News’ viewers, viewers likely to be critical of the welfare state, are certain beneficiaries of it.

The concepts are still sound that influenced the “progressive” Roosevelt presidents to support creation of a welfare state, which included support for public education, but there are serious challenges in how the welfare state, including public education, is being implemented in America. The challenges are systemic and could be overcome if those in power made the commitment to deal with them, but that would require a portion of the collective wealth being apportioned to that task. Those in power too often are under the influence of powerful players who do not want any of the collective wealth of the welfare state directed toward revision of systems that would impact anyone but their wealthy selves.

Woe to the disadvantaged.

If those who cannot support, for moral reasons, government playing a “key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens…based upon the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life,” perhaps they should look at this key governmental role from the perspective of their own self-interest. As President John Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address…

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Lest you think this was political hyperbole, keep in mind that when Franklin Roosevelt signed into place one of the cornerstones of the American welfare state—Social Security—he was in the midst of the greatest and most disruptive poverty in American history. It was 1935. Only seventeen years before, one of the most powerful nations on earth—Russia—was dismantled by thousands of desperate, angry poor.

Keep the Russian Revolution in mind when you consider, the last time the gap in wealth between the 0.1% and the rest of us was as large as it is now occurred in the years just before the beginning of the Great Depression. And no disadvantaged citizenry of any country in history, it could be argued, has been better armed than today’s disadvantaged Americans.

No country is immune to cataclysmic revolution.

Education has the potential to be a part of a cure for the current malaise of the poor, but not as it is currently being administered to the disadvantaged children of America, and if nothing changes, if the knowing-doing gap among educators does not decrease, if the gap in wealth continues to increase, if the haves win battles over the have-nots for a greater portion of “lavish state protection,” if the wealthy continue to blame the poor for what is wrong in America…

…then woe to us all.

4 thoughts on “Education and the Welfare State

  1. somewhere in the discussion the role of the individual needs to be addressed. that is, the receiver of support must also be accountable for taking the assistance and leveraging it for not only their own benefit, but also for the benefit of society. in my opinion government is superb at dispensing funds to various constituencies, both domestic and foreign, with little to no accounting of the return on said funding. and, as best as I know, m there is little appetite for targeting funds to those who demonstrate a drive and motivation to better themselves and their families.
    coming from an immigrant background myself, I can attest to the incredible hard work, dedication, selflessness and drive that my ancestors exhibited, which made life better for me and those of my nationality (Italian).


  2. Well done. Well done. At least a portion of the problem has to do with a lack of understanding reality. Many of the people who receive Social Security don’t view it as welfare – they feel that they’ve earned it. For them, welfare recipients are simply people on the dole – people who haven’t earned and don’t deserve anything. Another issue is the old saw, Actions Speak Louder than Words. The very people who are dismantling public education and cutting funding are proudly espousing their support for the systems they destroying.

    Liked by 1 person

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