Rubio may be wowing conservatives audience, but is his rhetoric grounded in reality?
One of the things that I have increasingly written about over the years is the need for more fidelity to the empirical (i.e., observable reality) in our political discourse. Given that desire (indeed, not just a desire but something that I think is a fundamental need for our politics), I find myself extremely unimpressed by the contents of Marco Rubio’s speech at the Reagan Library earlier this week.
There are several examples of a disconnect from the empirical in the speech. The one that especially stuck out to me is the following regarding social welfare programs:
these programs actually weakened us as a people.
You see, almost in forever, it was institutions and society that assumed the role of taking care of one another. If someone was sick in your family, you took care of them. If a neighbor met misfortune, you took care of them. You saved for your retirement and your future because you had to.
We took these things upon ourselves and our communities and our families and our homes and our churches and our synagogues. But all that changed when the government began to assume those responsibilities. All of the sudden, for an increasing number of people in our nation, it was no longer necessary to worry about saving for security because that was the government’s job.
I will stipulate from the top that there are clear needs for reform to entitlement programs over the medium and long term and, especially, the aging of the Baby Boomers put a serious strain on Medicare and Social Security. However, the number of factually problematic, if not simply utterly wrong, assertions in the above is stunning to the point that I am not sure where to begin (so I will just go in order of the statements).
First, the claim that “these programs actually weakened us a a people” is problematic, especially if one acknowledges that the era of the American social welfare state is also the era of American growth in global power (to the point of being the global hegemon). Further, all the most successful economies around the globe are also states that have well developed social welfare states. This is a fact. Later in the speech Rubio seems to equate “weakening” with cost, and I concur that welfare polices are expensive. However, the degree to which having to spend money on something equates as to “weaken[ing] us as a people” is a difficult claim to actually defend. Claims about cost alone also ignore the question of benefits.
Second, the notion that families, churches, and charities in 2011 do not care for people is simply not true. Indeed, if someone is sick in my family, I take care of them (and this is true throughout my family and with all the families I am aware of). The fact that is is currently possible for the elderly in particular to receive adequate medical care without bankrupting their children strikes me as a significant net positive.
Further, this vision of a society in which all needs were taken care of by families, churches, and charities is a retro-active fantasy.
Also, as best I can tell, people (although not all) do still save for their retirement and help out their neighbors, even in the context of the social welfare system. In terms of saving, I suspect that the people currently saving are the same people who saved before: upper middle and upper class citizens (i.e., the ones far more likely to be able to care for themselves without a government pension). I further suspect that the people who currently do not save are (lower middle, and lower class citizens, i.e., the same types of citizens who did not save back in Rubio’s pre-1930s Nirvana and who were at serious risk of spending their twilight years in poverty.
Third (and related to the second point): the notion that everyone was able to save for their retirements back in the pre-1930s ignores, again, the facts. One of the key impacts of the Social Security program has been to help substantially reduce poverty rates amongst the elderly (source for below: Aznick and Weaver):
The poverty rate among Americans aged 65 and older has fallen from 35.2 percent in 1959 to an all-time low of 9.7 percent in 1999 (see Chart 1). Social Security is one reason for that decline. The percentage of the aged who received Social Security grew sharply in the early 1960s (Social Security Administration 2000, p. 20), and partly because of legislative changes, mean inflation-adjusted Social Security income among the aged increased dramatically between 1967 and 1979 (Radner 1995).
The above tells us at least two things: 1) a substantial chunk of the pre-SS generation were not, for whatever reason, saving for retirement and then stopped doing so when SS came along, and 2) there have been substantially positive effects of these policies. Further, this does not strike me as an example of use being “weakened… as a people.” And yes, there are costs, but again we have to look at benefits as well. The chart above provides a clear indication of the direct benefit to elderly Americans. But, also, keeping with Rubio’s view of the past, it is worth noting that less poor elderly mean less financial stress on their children. While clearly all of us (or, at least, most) would help out our parents should they need help, it is also true that if the younger generation has to be the sole safety net for the older generation that that, too, has economic ramifications. At a minimum, let’s not pretend like Rubio’s idealized past is a paradise (setting aside issues of whether it ever existed or not).
It is one thing to say that the social welfare system needs reform, it is another to pretend like there was once a privatized paradise that addressed social needs as well as does Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Even if one believes that such a thing is possible, one has to acknowledge the political impossibility of dismantling said policies.
In short: it is not empirically true that there was one a time when all social needs were adequately addressed by private action (certainly not at levels we would currently find acceptable). Any serious attempt at reform has to acknowledge this fact and we, the public need to demand it.