Matt Bruenig wrote an interesting article, A Basic Welfare Framework. He was arguing against the idea that welfare states have to be “dizzyingly complicated.” He noted that it was actually pretty simple to create a welfare state, and he provided a four part framework for providing one: healthcare for all; education and childcare for all; income for all; and leave for all. This does cover pretty much everything that we think of as the welfare state. But uncommonly for Bruenig, it wasn’t put in the larger context of these discussions.
The question to me is not that welfare is complicated. Rather, it is why it is complicated. And the reason it is complicated is because we choose to make it so. The biggest issue is that we are so concerned that welfare might go to the undeserving. This is why a guaranteed minimum income is such a great idea. Rather than deciding how many children a woman ought to reasonably have, we could (if we were humane) just decide that all people deserve a basic lifestyle. And everything would flow from there. But rather than that, we decide that we must micromanage the poor. And the micromanagement can get bizarre, as it is in many states where ex-felons who did drugs can’t get food stamps, but ex-felons who murdered people can.
Of course, the whole thing is actually a kind of bait and switch that conservatives do. The whole idea that we must pay close attention to the poor so that they don’t bleed us dry is a conservative obsession. What was the whole “Welfare Queen” meme other than a myth told about undeserving people getting welfare, only to be used to stop deserving people from getting it? The idea was never that there are some people who don’t deserve welfare, but that all of them were like the “Welfare Queen” to one extent or another.
But it is more than that. One of the most frustrating conservative attacks on Obamacare has been that it so complicated. “Why does it have to be over 9,000 pages long?” they whine. Leave aside the fact that the length of a law is a completely irrelevant criterion to judge it on. The reason it has to be so complicated is because it’s a neoliberal law. It is a “partnership” between the public and private sectors. It couldn’t be a straight government program like single-payer insurance. As it was, conservatives call it the worst thing that ever emanated from Stalin’s anus — “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” We would have had Civil War II otherwise.
The main thing is that conservatives (including many in the Democratic Party) want welfare to be an extremely painful thing. People like Stuart Varney have been complaining for years that poor people own refrigerators. They want to be able to spot the poor people by their lack of shoes and socks — or even better: the presence of government mandated yellow arm bands. They certainly don’t want poor people to have the dignity of being part of the same government programs that everyone else is. I don’t think we save money by making welfare complicated. But I don’t think saving money is the point.