Posts tagged with: welfare state

As I noted yesterday, I’m in Montreal for the next couple of weeks, and today I had the chance to see some of the student protests firsthand. These protests have been going on now for over three months, and have to do with the raising of tuition for college in Quebec.

I’m teaching at Farel Reformed Theological Seminary, which is located in the heart of downtown Montreal, and is adjacent to Concordia University. As I walked around earlier this week, I noticed the following on one of Concordia’s buildings:

The Right to Education
The text is article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads in part, “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.”

I think that the kinds of protests we are seeing in Quebec might be the inevitable end of the logic of the welfare state. The logic goes something like this:

Education is a right, and should be free, or the next best thing to it. In order for it to be “free,” it must be administered, or at least underwritten, by the state, because we know that the only way to make something appear to be free is to requisition the necessary funds via taxation. This is, in fact, precisely the rationale for the existence of the modern welfare state, in which in the context of the Netherlands, for instance, it is understood to be “the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.”

Education is a right (per the UN Declaration), is constitutive of the general welfare, and a basic need. Thus it must be “fully guaranteed by the government” (to quote Noordegraaf from the Dutch context regarding social security, mutatis mutandis).

The upheavals we are seeing, then, are what happen when we can no longer sustain such guarantees. They are what happen when “free” becomes unaffordable and unsustainable.

This means that the flawed logic of the welfare state will have to be critically reexamined, no small task for a developed world that has steadily built infrastructure according to logic for much of the past seventy years.

For Quebec this does not bode well, as Cardus’ Peter Stockland puts it, “This is a province in the grip of reactionary progressives afflicted with severe intellectual and institutional sclerosis. Their malaise prevents any proposals for change from being given fair hearing, much less a chance of being put into play. Real change, not merely revolutionary play-acting, is anathema in this province.”

The conditions under which the government transfers wealth are different than the conditions under which the church transfers wealth, says James R. Rodgers. Yet many Christian leaders are tempted to use the power of the state to do what is required of the church:

Ginning up donations, however, is the hard road. Given the imperative that the needy should be fed, how much easier it is to step around the church and the power of the Gospel, and instead to make a friend of violence. It’s all in service of a good cause, after all. With the magisterial sword, no need to change hearts and actions. We only need to threaten. What a temptation it is to call on magisterial violence to accomplish God’s work. I am not a pacifist, and therefore do not object to the sword in principle. But as with war, I think that use of the magisterial sword needs justification.

There is also the impact on the church. Once the move is made to the domain of the civil sword, it’s difficult for the church to go back. If the church has ceded responsibility for the needy to the state, then what’s the point of increasing contributions to the church? To be sure, there will always be interstices in government welfare, but filling in the cracks of the welfare state is hardly a stirring call.

Read more . . .

I recently came across an interesting academic journal, Diaconia: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. One of the sample articles available is by Herman Noordegraaf of the Protestant Theological University in Leiden. His piece is titled, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor” (PDF).

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is a theme issue on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” and a series of pieces take up a line of recent history in the Netherlands. A significant article by Rolf van der Woude, senior researcher at the Historical Documentation Centre for Dutch Protestantism at the VU University Amsterdam, examines the changes in Reformed thought on the social question from the First Social Congress in 1891 to the Third Social Conference in 1952. As van der Woude concludes, in the post war era, “A new generation believed that the beast of the state, caged for so long, had now been tamed. At the end of the 1950s, Van den Heuvel’s generation retreated, the Netherlands entered a period of economic boom, and a generous welfare state was rapidly erected from the ground up wherein welfare was no longer a matter of charity but a matter of justice guaranteed by the government. The beast of the state had become an ally.”

Noordegraaf’s piece can be read as a companion article to van der Woude’s, tracing the development (or lack thereof) in Christian social thought in the Netherlands over the last half century. As Noordegraaf writes, the situation has largely remained the same, in that the church’s primary responsibility is understood not merely to have to provide material assistance to the poor, but rather advocate for reliance on the welfare state for such provision. As Noordegraaf writes, a declaration on the problem of poverty in 1987 codified the approach of “aid under protest,” in which the churches provide aid to the poor but only under protest that the government was not meeting welfare needs appropriately. The statement reads:

We reject the way people are once again made dependent on charity. We plead for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government. For this reason, financial aid given by churches in situations of need should be combined with protest against the causes of this need to government and society.

Noordegraaf’s observation is that the churches, both locally and denominationally, have been too concerned with meeting the momentary concrete needs of the poor and need to pay more attention to the mandate to lobby the government for more expansive social welfare programs. The point is that the need for Christian or church-based charity indicts the lack of justice under a modern constitutional state, where freedom from need and want ought to be simply guaranteed.

As Nordegraaf concludes concerning recent trends, “More and more, as the above mentioned reports show, churches have been involved in material aid: when people are in need and ask for help, you give it. It is a kind of safety net under the increasingly porous safety net of the state.” He continues, “The fact that the churches found this problematic reflects their belief that the principles of the welfare state are worth fighting for. This has to do with a vision of the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.” Noordegraaf concludes that “it is in harmony with the calvinist approach of the responsibility of the state that churches try to make clear to government and to society at large that they have helped with material aid. This signalizing can take many forms: in letters, reports, talks, discussions, programmes in the media, articles in newspapers and so on. In this way, individual aid is combined with advocacy in the public domain.”

I commend these two articles to your reading: Rolf van der Woude, “Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952,” and Herman Noordegraaf, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor.”

They will make clear just how much things have changed over the last 120 years in the Netherlands, when Abraham Kuyper emphasized the priority of Christian giving in 1881, arguing that “the holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.” Such emphasis on private Christian charity is now understood to be retrograde and obsolete.

On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg discusses remarks made by President Barack Obama at a March 30 campaign stop at the University of Vermont. From the White House transcript of the speech, here is some of what the president said:

The American story is not just about what we do on our own. Yes, we’re rugged individualists and we expect personal responsibility, and everybody out there has got to work hard and carry their weight. But we also have always understood that we wouldn’t win the race for new jobs and businesses and middle-class security if we were just applying some you’re-on-your-own economics. It’s been tried in our history and it hasn’t worked. It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the Great Depression. It didn’t work when we tried it in the last decade. We just tried this. What they’re peddling has been tried. It did not work. (Applause.)

Gregg on NRO:

… it’s especially noticeable that when insisting we must take care of our neighbor the president said nothing about the role of volunteer associations — or any non-state formation whatsoever — in addressing social and economic challenges. Nor did he mention anything about the often-selfless work of loving our neighbor undertaken by the same religious organizations whose constitutionally guaranteed (and natural) liberty to live, act, and serve others according to their beliefs is being unreasonably constricted by the more ghoulish segments of his administration in the name of “choice.”

Like all good Rawlsians, President Obama finds it hard to conceptualize the possibility that private communities and associations might often be better at helping our neighbor in need than governments. Instead, his instinct is to search immediately for a political state-focused solution. If the president invested some time in exploring the concept of social justice, he would discover that its earliest articulators — mostly mid-19th-century Italian Catholic theologians – thought it should be primarily realized through associations and institutions of civil society with the government playing a supportive, but normally background role.

Read “So Who Is Our Keeper, Mr. President?” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.

This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).

This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.

Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith.  Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”

Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.

The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it:   “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”

Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.

When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically.  But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.

The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.

Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.

Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects.  Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.

Daniel Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament, issued a strong warning to conservative Americans worried about their country’s future in a speech he delivered at the CPAC rally last week in Washington.

The self-proclaimed Euroskeptic and author of The New Road to Serfdom, warned U.S. political conservatives not to follow in Europe’s tragic footsteps by allowing their governments to seize too much power and create dependency on mismanaged socialized government programs — the very Welfare State culture that has a strangle hold on the Old Continent’s major economies such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

In Hannan’s opinion, Europe is “in the grip of a prolonged winter … of discontent” where there are nation-wide protests and grumbling every day against political and economic liberalization — but with little hope for actual change.  Europe is in such a dire state, he says, because it is has long lost its culture of enterprise and self-responsibility.

Hannan said he always admired Americans for their optimism and “anything’s possible” attitude, but they need to make sure their “rulers remember they are not rulers but representatives.”  He humorously noted that in Belgium, where he works in European Parliament, the country was without a government for nearly two years “and it was working brilliantly!”

Below you can watch Hannan’s interview and full speech delivered at CPAC.

In his commentary this week, Acton Research Fellow Anthony Bradley looks at the phenomenon of a black president whose policies have “not led to significant progress for blacks.” Bradley is the author of the new book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development. Sign up for the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter here.

Despite Economic and Social Ills, Blacks Give Obama a Pass

By Anthony Bradley

With the approach of Black History Month we are reminded of the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. Some black leaders, however, believe that Mr. Obama has let the black community down. For example, prominent voices like Dr. Cornell West and PBS’s Tavis Smiley, former supporters of Obama, believe that having a black president has not led to significant progress for blacks. The truth is that blacks are not only worse off under Barack Obama’s presidency but are grappling with deep-seated economic and social issues that the President himself has little or no expertise in solving.

In spite of these realities, some leaders are asking the black community to support Obama for odd reasons like race. For example, Tom Joyner, host of one of the highest rated morning shows in America, said in an October 2011 column, “Let’s not even deal with facts right now. Let’s deal with our blackness and pride — and loyalty. We have a chance to reelect the first African American president … And I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that as black people, we should do it because he’s a black man.” The historic enthusiasm is understandable but we must deal with facts that tell us race-based voting is futile.

Take unemployment, for example. According to a January report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, black worker unemployment steadied around 15-16 percent in 2011, while unemployment for the rest of the workforce dropped below 9 percent. That is, in 2011 the unemployment rate for African-Americans stayed almost exactly the same and declined for everyone else.

Second, with respect to family issues, it is well known that blacks continue to lead the nation in single motherhood. According to 2008 figures, the most recent year for which accurate data is available, 72 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers compared to 17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of Native Americans. By extension, then, fatherlessness continues to undermine black progress in America. According to FathersUnite.org, 90 percent of runaway children, 85 percent of all children who exhibit behavioral disorders, 70 percent of all high school dropouts, and 85 percent of all youths sitting in prisons are from fatherless homes.

How would voting again for Barack Obama — simply because he is black — fix these problems? Barack Obama is not an entrepreneur nor can he be a father to the fatherless. The best thing that President Obama could do if elected for a second-term would be to remove all the barriers in the way of entrepreneurs so that they can do the things that they do well, such as provide the sustainable employment opportunities that allow adults to take care of their families and permit the marketplace to meet the needs of all of us. Government is neither designed nor equipped to create and sustain jobs. Thousands of years of experience show clearly: Only entrepreneurs have the gifts and expertise to create jobs. We need to encourage them because sustainable employment is the only long-term solution to poverty and unemployment.

With respect to family, one important thing President Obama can do is to continue to provide an encouraging example. Even if you do not agree with Obama’s politics, the president is certainly a model of a man who is committed to his wife and children. In fact, if more black men were committed to their children and their mothers in the way that President Obama is through the institution of marriage, many of the statistics listed above would plummet. However, there is no political solution that President Obama can promote because fatherlessness is fundamentally a moral problem. If we want to make a better black history – and leave a better legacy for our youth — we have to morally form black men so that they remain committed to loving women and children within the context of marriage.

If blacks want to chart a new course reversing these statistics, we should look not to politicians for answers but ask them to get regulatory barriers out of the way of entrepreneurs and moral institutions so that they can do what they have proven the best at for centuries — namely, create the conditions for virtuous human flourishing.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.

First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.

A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.

King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.

The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.

Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:

Policy
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.

Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.

Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:

Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.

Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …

The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.

What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.

I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.

Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.

In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.

Friedrich Hayek called it a weasel word. The American Spectator has my new essay on it here.

More on social justice as it appears in Catholic social teaching here. And more on social business here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Over at the Economix blog, University of Chicago economist Casey B. Mullin takes another look at some of the recent poverty numbers. He notes the traditional interpretation, that “the safety net did a great job: For every seven people who would have fallen into poverty, the social safety net caught six.”

But another interpretation might have a bit more going for it, actually, and fits in line with my previous analogy between a safety net as a trampoline vs. a foam pit:

Another interpretation is that the safety net has taken away incentives and serves as a penalty for earning incomes above the poverty line. For every seven persons who let their market income fall below the poverty line, only one of them will have to bear the consequence of a poverty living standard. The other six will have a living standard above poverty.

Of course, most people work hard despite a generous safety net, and 140 million people are still working today. But in a labor force as big as ours, it takes only a small fraction of people who react to a generous safety net by working less to create millions of unemployed. I suspect that employment cannot return to pre-recession levels until safety-net generosity does, too.

The conclusion ought to be that policies that provide incentives for people to not seek out work as vigorously as they otherwise might, even if such incentives are unintended consequences, are morally suspect and economically questionable.