The first entitlement reform I’m suggesting is community service in return for government assistance. This should apply to anyone who is on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., ObamaCare), unemployment insurance, food stamps, public housing, etc., or who gets more in government aid than they pay in taxes.
The reason to have a mandate like this has to do with our different attitudes toward private obligations and public obligations.
When an obligation is private — for instance, when it’s your children, and your responsibility to look after them — you work harder to produce more so you can fulfill that obligation. We see this all the time with single moms, who work multiple jobs and stretch themselves to the limit (and past it) to provide for and take care of their own kids.
But when an obligation is public — for instance, when it’s the government’s responsibility to look after someone — we typically don’t work harder to fulfill that obligation, even though government is dependent on our productivity (via taxes) to carry out that responsibility. Again, we see this all the time with government programs to aid the poor, disabled, or otherwise needy and dependent. How many people have taken an extra job in order to provide more tax revenue for Medicare or Medicaid? How many people have called up a government institution — not to see what they can get from it — but to find out how they can contribute more to it?
The government is us, so the government’s obligation to take care of the poor and disabled and abandoned is our obligation to take care of the poor and disabled and abandoned. Yet few people take this as an incentive to work harder. More likely, we we are relieved that government is taking on these obligations, because we think of it as someone else taking up the burden.
Obligations are often better fulfilled when they’re private property, rather than publicly held. It’s sort of a “tragedy of the commons” applied to duties, not just resources. We frequently expend more energy and ingenuity to care for our own possessions and duties than we do for possessions and duties held in common.
And that’s why a community service requirement is important. There is an enormous disparity in the amount different people pay in taxes. Call it a “contribution inequality”. Much of this is understandable, because rich people have a much greater income, so they pay more in taxes.
But people who aren’t rich are still responsible for helping to provide for public obligations. In particular, people who are on public assistance are getting an income: in return, they should be working. And people who aren’t helping provide for public obligations by paying taxes should be given another path to help contribute.
Community service is that path. There’s nothing shameful or embarrassing about it. In fact, it’s like what we’re routinely told about paying taxes: it’s patriotic, rewarding, and we should be happy to do it.
Naturally, some people should be exempted. People who are disabled to the point that they can’t work shouldn’t have to do community service. Same for anyone who already works full-time but still gets government aid, or who doesn’t work but stays at home full-time taking care of an infant or other dependent. And veterans’ benefits come from military service, so further community service shouldn’t be required.
But to those on government assistance who are able-bodied and unemployed, what are they doing to help take care of the elderly and disabled, the full-time worker who can’t make ends meet, the stay-at-home caretaker, the veteran? If you’re not going to expend your own energy and ingenuity trying to find a way to help them, government will do it for you.
And there’s lots of ways people can perform community service: by cleaning up trash on public streets and in parks; by helping the elderly or disabled get groceries or get to a doctor’s appointment; or by cleaning public toilets, or mopping floors at the local hospital. There’s any number of ways that people on taxpayer assistance can work to improve their local communities, thereby leaving government with more money to dedicate to paying for the aid programs that they and others are benefitting from.
This is no different from expecting corporations (for instance, General Motors) to pay back government for the bailing them out. Shouldn’t we ask individuals to do the same? Similarly, wealthy states frequently complain that they send more money to the federal government than they get back from it. Doesn’t this complaint apply equally to individuals? Moreover, our spending on social programs should not be looked at merely as an entitlement, but as an investment. Isn’t it reasonable to expect a return on that investment?
President Obama’s administration has argued that the mandate on individuals to buy health insurance stems from “the interconnectedness of our health care costs”. We all have to contribute if we’re all going to be covered, we can’t have free riders. But that doesn’t just apply to health insurance, it applies to all taxpayer assistance programs generally. Universal coverage requires universal contribution. We need to spread the productivity around, so that it’s not just taxpayers who are helping to assist the needy, but also the able-bodied who are receiving taxpayer assistance. People having a right to aid means we all have an obligation to help provide and pay for them.
President Obama himself has spoken of the need for all of us to work together to improve our country: “Even as we speak, there are countless Americans serving at soup kitchens and food pantries; contributing to their communities; and standing guard around the world. And in a larger sense, that’s emblematic of what Americans have always done. We come together and do what’s required to make tomorrow better than today. … That’s who we are. We shape our own destiny with conviction, compassion, and clear and common purpose.”
We need to treat public obligations as our obligations, not as government’s obligations. That is our clear, compassionate, common purpose. We need to make sure we’re living up to our obligation to take care of one another.
Having a requirement of community service for the able-bodied unemployed receiving taxpayer assistance is a way to do that.