Friday, July 20, 2012

Social Spending in the U.S.: An International Comparison

For a decade, the OECD tracked patterns of “social spending” in its member countries, distinguishing between private and public social spending--the chart above shows those patterns for 2007 (explained further below). Public social spending is tax-based programs to support housing and food insecurity of fellow citizens in poverty. Private social spending is charitable giving by generous citizens for those same ends. As U.S. citizens we like to think we are generally a kind, generous people, who help the needy with our charitable giving, especially those who consider us to be a "Christian nation."

While in many cases it may be true that we in the U.S. are generous, especially when it comes to our family or community members, a fundamental shift in society has caused a breakdown in traditional ways of helping the needy and conceptualizing broader institutions of care. Take, for instance, traditional family structures—the new husband and wife moved into the parents’ household, and stayed there for life. Once the parents became infirm, the children took care of them. There were no nursing homes, and no need for Social Security or Medicare. Of course at that time we didn’t have the medical facilities to suck 17% of our GDP into treatment as we see in the U.S. today, we mostly worked on our family farms to sustain ourselves, and our average lifespan was in the 40s. Once industrialization brought us into cities, and hospitals started becoming the focus of healthcare, rather than the house-calling general practitioner who accepted chickens as payment, everything about our way of life had to change. Included in this change is how we conceptualize charity, the role of the churches in charity, and the role of non-family organizations in providing care. Homelessness was primarily centered around those with no living family members—in some cultures such unfortunates are expected to end their own lives, such as the practice of “widow suicide” where they throw themselves onto the burning pyre of their dead husband.

With the move into cities, and the “nuclear family” pattern becoming morally dominant, where the husband and wife often moved as far away from their parents as possible to raise their children, gone are the days of family-centered care for the multiple generations throughout the entire lifespan. Currently, it is often considered shameful for children to linger in their parents’ home, or for parents to move back in with their children, the opposite moral belief from previous generations. Enter new programs to deal with these changes—such as Social Security and nursing homes. Enter also a new way of thinking about the radical forms of individualism that we had institutionalized—a rejection of the extended family network in favor of my own “nuclear” family goals, and a rejection of the importance of the broader community to my own welfare. Within these new patterns, church charitable giving often refocused onto foreign missionary work, with the assumption that the poor in the U.S. have the opportunity to feed and house themselves if they could garner the moral fortitude, or more insidiously, continuation of the Victorian imperialist impulse to “civilize” and “evangelize” the moral primitives in other cultures.
So what of contemporary patterns of charitable giving and general social spending do we see today? Returning to the OECD data, 2007 was the last year data was collected in this area. Looking at 20 of the top industrialized countries, the chart shows how much those countries spend on social welfare “per capita” (PPP). Other than Luxembourg, the top spender, the other 19 countries are all within about $6,000 per capita spending of each other. The chart distinguishes between public and private spending, blue and red, respectively. In terms of total social spending, the U.S. is in the bottom third, ranked #14 out of 20. When looking at the private amount of per capita spending, i.e., charitable giving, the U.S. ranks even lower, #15 out of 20.

One of the implications of this data, integrated with many of our poor rankings in comparisons with other high-income countries in areas such as education, healthcare, poverty intensity, and social mobility, is that need to reconceptualize how we view social care in this country. One of the biggest political debates in the country today is about taxes, with the complaint from conservatives that we are paying exorbitant tax rates, much of which is going to a welfare system that only fosters dependency and inactivity. The assumption is that if there is true need, local systems of care, such as families and charitable organizations, should be taking care of them, not massive federal programs that are inefficient and bloated. In fact, even the Bush administration’s USDA study of the welfare system indicated that there is only 1% fraud, with total housing and food insecurity welfare aid representing only 3% of the U.S. federal budget, half of which goes to children—if either party is going to be motivated to find fraud within a social welfare program, it is the conservative party. I would call this neither bloated nor inefficient.

The problem with the conservative framing of care is that the traditional structures that have provided care, families, have been sundered by the very processes that conservatives have promoted economically, i.e., capitalist individualism with an emphasis on the nuclear family structure as the primary moral good. Both traditional sectors of care—the family and the churches—have moved away from caring for those left out of the opportunity structures in society. By way of example, consistent research indicates that 80% of children born into families in the bottom 20% of the socio-economic ladder will stay at the bottom, the cause of which is not laziness or moral ineptitude, but a lack of education and a lack of jobs, not to mention exploitation by lenders, and other predatory schemes/businesses, such as lotteries, liquor stores, and high-priced markets in neighborhoods with no transportation (public or private) to lower-priced stores. To compensate for shifting arenas of care (deficits created by the solidification of the nuclear family and decreased community investment by churches), large government programs took over, such as FDR’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, and now Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Each were efforts to adapt regimes of care to fundamental structural changes in U.S. social and economic realities.

If conservatives assume that local, charitable giving is a better source of funding for such programs, then processes would need to be established to ensure that all local communities have generous donors to administrate and fund such programs. Other than the naïve assumption that such processes exist, the more fundamental problem is the pattern of social exclusion that has dominated inequality patterns in all societies. Taking the U.S. as an example, our history of racial exploitation and discrimination demonstrates the ease with which minority groups become excluded from wider structures of social support and opportunities. More profoundly, minority groups in our history have been excluded even from the political systems, by denying them the right to vote. More currently, felons fall into a group that faces extraordinary discrimination in the U.S., being excluded by law from receiving many kinds of educational grants/loans, public housing or food assistance, and voting rights, and excluded socially from most legal employment. The U.S. is the globe’s largest jailer, with 25% of the world’s prisoners, but being only 4% of the world’s population.

Either our established patterns of preparing good citizens and creating healthy communities have stopped working, or we have a series of inappropriate funding priorities—or both. While we are low on the ranking of social spending, both in terms of public spending, and especially private charitable giving, we are at the same time highest on the ranking of incarceration spending, and healthcare spending, while getting relatively little in return, in comparison to other high-income countries. We might think that we are a kind, generous people. The data seems to indicate otherwise.

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