Posted 7 months ago on Oct. 9, 2012, 1:12 p.m. EST by flip
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Let’s consider just one particular policy area, poverty, where we lag far behind other democracies. We have an abysmal record in reducing the level of poverty in this country. It went down in the 1960s, but for the last 40 years it has hovered stubbornly at around 11-13%. Today, over 43 million Americans continue to suffer severe economic hardship. Conservatives consider our failure to reduce poverty as evidence of the inherent limitations of government. They conclude (wrongly) that since our current anti-poverty policies have failed, that there is nothing the government can do and that it should get out of the business of trying to eliminate poverty. It is this attitude that has animated Republican attempts to cut back on programs for the poor, such as welfare and job training. For them, our failures in poverty policy only contribute to the case they are making for a more limited government.
But the record of fighting poverty in Europe clearly demonstrates that governments are quite capable of addressing poverty much more effectively. Anti-poverty policies in the U.S. only lift 36% of people out of poverty, while government policies reduce poverty in Germany by 76%, by 83% in the Netherlands, and by 89% in Sweden.2 Not surprisingly, all of these other countries end up with much lower rates of poverty. While our poverty rate continues to hover around 12%, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden have reduced their poverty rates to 4%, 4% and 2% respectively.
These are very impressive differences. And it is not a mystery how these other countries have been more successful in addressing poverty. First, these countries simply spend more on helping people out of poverty – welfare payments are higher, unemployment benefits are more generous and last longer, and so on. Spending more money helps lift more people out of poverty. In addition, social welfare policies in these other countries are much more universal – they include everyone, not just limited groups. Everyone has national health insurance; everyone qualifies for day care subsidies, and so on. Because of this, the social safety net is much more complete and effective than in the U.S., and this means that fewer people are likely to slip into poverty because of personal disasters such as a serious illness, a divorce, or the loss of a job. Most other democracies also pursue policies that help to raise wages. They encourage rather than discourage the formation of unions and they set a much higher minimum wage – both of which help to lower the number of the working poor in these countries.
As Bok found, poverty is just one of dozens of areas in which the U.S. lags behind other Western democracies. Clearly our government could be doing much more to address a wide variety of problems and could make even greater strides in improving the lives of Americans. This fact by itself is a powerful argument in favor of more government in the U.S.