Editorial: Government solutions must stop making things worse

A quote attributed to the late US president Ronald Reagan identifies the nine most terrifying words in the English language as “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” The underlying truth in those words, even though they were uttered by an advocate of a notoriously “small government” Republican viewpoint is hard to deny. Even the most well meaning of government interventions can often be seen to have a tendency to spiral horribly out of control to wreak more havoc than the original problem.

While this may be so, it doesn’t have to be. There is plenty of evidence that, freed from the shackles of political expediency and electoral pandering, there really are solutions that government could implement that will go a long way to tackling those chronic social ills that seem so insurmountable despite all good intentions.

Under the current system those members of society generally identified as “the poor” are trapped in their circumstances by those governments that seek to genuinely to help. It isn’t necessarily altruism that motivates these efforts, of course. An expanded middle class with more disposable income fuels an economic engine that can lift all boats and, as counterintuitive as it might seen in the present provincial circumstances, usually leads to an electorate content with its current political leaders—electoral currency as it were.

But attempting to fix the social ill of poverty by adding additional layers to the social safety net encompassed by welfare agencies such as Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program can and do far too often backfire spectacularly. The culprit in these failures is known among those who are on the front lines of tackling poverty as “the welfare wall.”

The concept goes like this. The poor cannot afford the drugs they need to combat illness and afflictions—so we create a drug plan for the poor. The poor cannot afford to rent adequate housing in the current marketplace—so we create social housing complexes and other subsidized rent regimes. The poor cannot afford dental care—we create dental plans for the poor. Education is found to be one of the key factors leading to a life below the poverty line—create a free tuition and income support program to help people help lift themselves out of the slums and ghettos of our cities. All invariably connected to income levels and all coming with the social stigma of being on the dole.

This tends to enlarge the right wing target placed on their back and tends toward increasing the precariousness of the lives of those living in poverty (think Mike Harris welfare cuts). The concept that the poor are inherently lazy and the authors of their own despair is far too attractive and serves to make those on the lowest economic rungs easy targets for the righteous right—because nothing annoys the “common” man more than seeing someone else getting something they are not.

Even as social safety nets look to lift those in the direst circumstances above the meanest rungs of existence, they face a daunting barrier. Get an entry level job that pays one dollar above the welfare cut-off rate and you slam into the wall—you lose the drug plan, you lose the housing, the educational opportunities, you lose the dental care and the drug plan. It simply doesn’t make sense, especially for anyone with children to feed, clothe and keep a dry roof overhead to take on that gamble.

For any reasonable person, remaining in the status quo of social welfare is the best and most responsible option. This is the welfare wall.

The solution is actually fairly simple and, even if the price tag might seem at first blush to be a little unsettling, economists have made a sound argument that the end game will benefit everyone—take as many of those ancillary social services as possible out of the welfare system and make them a free-standing and universal aspect of life in our modern society.

Since everyone receives these benefits, no one is left standing stark in the cold glare of social stigma. Since the benefits are no longer linked to an individual or household income level there is no longer any disincentive to take that minimum wage job, to climb onto the lowest rungs in the employment ladder that eventually lead to better paying careers.

There are strong winds flying in the face of these solutions. Most of them based more on ideology than sound social science. These ideological barriers owe more to the vestiges of a pervasive and Puritanical/Victorian worldview than any foundation in fact. They are much of that which holds us back from creating a society fit to meet the challenges of a world soon to be dominated by AI and automated production.

We must strive to work our way past those mindsets more applicable to the pre-industrial and industrial ages than a modern post-industrial society.

To borrow the words of singer John Mellancamp it is far past time that “the walls come a tumbling down.”