Yesterday’s CNNMoney contains an article entitled “Debt ceiling impasse imperils safety net.” “Safety net” is an interesting choice of words. When we think of a safety net, we tend to think of the thing that’s supposed to catch the tightrope walker if he falls. Ordinarily, he doesn’t fall (otherwise, people wouldn’t pay to go to the circus). It’s there in case of a rare accident.
The article characterizes as “safety net programs” unemployment, tuition grants, food stamps, subsidies for housing and child care, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Nearly everyone aged sixty-five and above, however, is eligible for Medicare. While Medicaid and food stamps sound like safety net programs, the article cites figures that undercut that assumption: that one out of every seven persons receives food stamps, and that Medicaid is “the primary payer for two-thirds of the country’s nursing home residents.” As in the case of Medicare, nearly everyone becomes eligible for Social Security as well.
Many of these programs therefore have nothing to do with a “safety net.” For example, Americans can usually fund their own retirement without government assistance. If people often have difficulty meeting their own foreseeable medical expenses, that is because of market inefficiencies, as I argued in an earlier posting.
Progressives and conservatives disagree, of course, over what type of genuine safety net is appropriate. Progressives inevitably look to federal bureaucracy to help the needy, while conservatives look askance at solutions that hobble economic growth (and therefore job creation), expand the role of the federal government in our lives, and often foster patterns of dependence.
These disagreements are beside the point when it comes to our current budget problems, however, because a “safety net” does not bear responsibility for the bloated federal expenditure. The reason expenditure is out of control is the fact that the government is attempting to do for most people what most people are able to do for themselves.