Responsibly Reforming the Welfare State

Today, James Pethokoukis tweeted this old blog post of his. I think that it is a good one:

. . . while the recovery’s glacial pace, both in terms of GDP and jobs, is unacceptable, the safety net’s performance is encouraging. The pain from the Great Recession, as bad it was, would have been far worse for middle- and low-income Americans if we were still in a sort of 1920s, Coolidgean world that many on the right these days seem to long for. As Arthur Brooks, AEI’s president, puts it:

One of the things, in my view, that we get wrong in the free enterprise movement is this war against the social safety net, which is just insane. The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society. And we somehow want to zero out food stamps or something, it’s nuts to want to be doing something like that. We have to declare peace on the safety net.

Now declaring peace isn’t the same thing as surrendering to the status quo. As currently structured, the US safety net is financially unsustainable and retards economic growth too much, promotes dependency over work, and discourages family formation. If there are any limits on the welfare state’s expansion, the left only speaks of them sotto voce if at all. But the welfare state needs thoughtful and thorough reform. And that doesn’t mean just slapping arbitrary spending caps on federal programs and block granting them back to the states. Rather, it means restructuring programs so they are both better targeted towards those who truly need help and give a lift to those trying to get on or stay on the ladder of economic opportunity. Oh, and making programs affordable. We cannot redistribute more wealth than we create, after all.

Well said. Pethokoukis and Brooks are among the select few on the right who are thinking seriously about how to reform the welfare state. They are to be commended for that, and Pethokoukis’s post is full of good ideas on how to make the welfare state work better. I know that there are plenty of people on the right who want to take a wrecking ball to the welfare state, but that is simply not politically feasible at this time–or at any time in the foreseeable future–and trying to achieve the impossible means not devoting the time, attention and energy necessary to implement changes that can be implemented. Welfare reform along the Brooks-Pethokoukis lines would not only be good policy, it would be good politics as well. It would limit the growth of government, make it more responsive to human needs, and it would bring back a lot of sanity to domestic policy in general.