Education and the Welfare State

(Updated version of a 2019 post)

As a bona fide advantaged Boomer, I have for most of my adult life listened to and read about the U.S. being an out of control welfare state, and as I was pondering topics for the blogosphere, I realized I did not have a reasoned, empirical point of view on the relative merits–at least in the moral sense–of a welfare state. I decided to give the matter some thought in the context 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.”

In addition to being a potential war cry, albeit a mouthful, for the Army of Equality, Wikipedia’s description would appear to encompass the role of public education in the 20th Century, and for the children who live in affluent districts in the 21st Century, public education may still be fulfilling the expectations of the welfare state thus described. For millions of disadvantaged students—not so much.

Like many suburban-American Boomers, I am descended from European immigrants who, looking for a better life, immigrated to our shores in the 1800s and early 1900s 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 here is a very relevant caveat: they benefitted because they were considered white— and they 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 public schooling had not been available to them, their families could not have afforded the cost of a private education, and all the benefits that accrued from their being educated would have been beyond their grasp.

Tens of 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 Wikipedia description of it, which leaves me 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?”

Well over a century ago, the last bullet was sometimes 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 125-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 SCOTUS-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. In other words …

the class that enjoys the largest share of government protection today is the class that benefitted from the Trump Administration’s massive tax cuts.

125-years-ago, Ward identified the wealthy as having denounced “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 suggests that the wealthy and advantaged leaders who have been manipulating Fox News as a propaganda outlet (their media conduit to the hoi polloi) are still denouncing—as their predecessors had done in the 1890s—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, which is nothing more than 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. Those politicians (soldiers of the Army of Liberty) 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 and rural public schools as Ports 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 related to which group of Americans constitute the largest segment of Fox News’ viewers. According to The Atlantic, in 2015 over half of Fox viewers were 68 or older. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey reports that among those who named Fox News as their main source for political news, 69% are aged 50 or older. I would be very surprised if the vast majority of these Fox viewers 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, have been or are likely to be 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 now 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 significant slice of the collective wealth pie being apportioned to that task. Those in political power too often are under the influence of big eaters who only want crumbs from the wealth pie to trickle off their heaping tables onto their polished floors for the rest of us to fight over. As a result, those in power want revisions in the welfare state to be those that directly and positively impact 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 JFK was using 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—especially to disadvantaged children of color—and if nothing changes, if the knowing-doing gap (the failure to put research-based strategies into professional practice) 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.

See also: What Does It Mean to be White? and Baring the Wound.

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(The featured image is from Pixabay; copyright infringement is not intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images.)