Charity Can’t Cut It

by Jonah Shepp

Mike Konczal tears down the right-wing trope that private charity can be an adequate substitute for government social insurance, looking at the historical role of the state in building and maintaining America’s safety net:

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world.

The government’s footprint has always grown alongside the rest of society. The public post office helped unite the national civil society Alexis de Tocqueville found and celebrated in his travels throughout the United States. From tariff walls to the continental railroad system to the educated workforce coming out of land-grant schools, the budding industrial power of the United States was always joined with the growth of the government. The government played a major role throughout the nineteenth century in providing disaster relief in the aftermath of fires, floods, storms, droughts, famine, and more.

James Kwak backs him up:

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are basic economic reasons why public social insurance is superior to voluntary charity. The goal here is to protect people against risk: of unemployment, of health emergency, of outliving one’s savings, and so on. For a risk-mitigation scheme to work, there are a few things that are necessary. One is that people actually be covered. This is something you can never have with a private system (unless it’s regulated to the point of being essentially public), since charities get to pick and choose whom they want to help. …

Another thing you want is the assurance that the system has the financial capacity to actually protect you in the event of a crisis. That’s why you don’t depend on your neighbors to rebuild your house if it burns down. Besides the fact that they may not like you, they probably don’t have enough money—especially if you lose your house in a fire that burns down the entire neighborhood. As I’ve said many times before, there is no other entity in the country—and not really one in the world—with the financial capacity of the federal government. Even state governments scramble to cut benefits when push comes to shove, which is one reason why some states provide Medicaid coverage to almost no one.