Reimagining Welfare (part 1 of 2)

by Paul Mero

The contentious debate over Medicaid expansion is a great example of why I founded Next Generation Freedom Fund to encourage Utah’s conservative policymakers to see the poor, poverty and poverty relief in transcendent terms.

The divisive politics surrounding Proposition 3 have little to do with the general unity over the policy of Medicaid expansion. Regardless of state legislators tinkering with the initiative, the fact remains that nearly every legislator has now voted for Medicaid expansion. I raised this point four years ago in defense of the Healthy Utah plan: The politics of “expansion” is a red herring. Once you’ve accepted the idea of Medicaid, you’ve accepted the prudent movement, extensions, and reductions, of coverage at any given time.

The same thinking holds true with Utah’s public safety net: Once you’ve accepted the idea of providing a welfare safety net, all that is left to consider is its coverage. I can (and do) make a conservative’s case for a broad safety net – a safety net that leaves people with hope in the pursuit of happiness. This conservative framework does not replace or negate a politics of prudence. After all, a safety net is not designed to support the weight of every misfortune or dream. But it should provide people with hope – society’s promise that any fall, failure or misstep will not become catastrophic. Utah’s public safety net is a witness to and measuring stick of our humanity.

Such a societal commitment to one another requires political transcendence. It requires a change of heart. It requires the vast majority of us to be of one heart and one mind. Not lip service. Not platitudes. Just a sincere love of our neighbor. But how do we achieve such transcendence as a society? How do we create devotion to one another within an all-too-common transactional political framework?

Up to now, our only answers have centered on desperate verbal appeals to become our better angels. We often refer to this social awareness as behaving the Utah Way. But the Utah Way is a political unicorn appearing only once in recent memory. Outside of the state immigration debate, the Utah Way has been nothing more than a delusion – a term we like to invoke when describing the modern miracle of political compromise. But transcendence isn’t compromise.

Transcendence is a redemptive sacrifice – deeds not words, a political refiner’s fire and, like most genuine sacrifices, it comes with a heavy price. Nothing in the realm of politics is as big of a sacrifice than a societal commitment to a strong, sufficient and restorative public safety net. And no other human action can redeem a society better than caring for the poor, needy, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised among us – and do so in a way absent of class distinction and personal judgments while giving hope to the hopeless, neededness to the needy, dignity to the discarded and community to the disconnected.

If there is such a thing as “Utah Exceptionalism” – and I believe there is – this is the only way we can prove it. Caring for our neighbors in need is the only way we’ll achieve a higher sense of self, community, and democracy – a transcendent political culture.

When I have argued for a transcendent view of our neighbors in need, policy makers ask me privately what such a new approach looks like? First and foremost, as you would expect from any effort claiming transcendence, it requires a reimagining of the interconnectedness of wealth and poverty, banishment of class distinctions and the adoption of humane welfare delivery systems. Mostly, it requires seeing others as you see yourself.

In plain English, on the ground, as prudent public policy, a new approach requires a fundamental policy shift away from bureaucratic and progressive welfare delivery models and toward a humane and holistic welfare delivery system. Our current welfare system is impersonal and slavish built upon the progressive idea that socially isolated dependency is preferable to communal dependency – a perversion of true self-reliance. No man is an island. Every healthy and dignified human being is connected to and dependent upon others. The question is: Upon which are we dependent – government or community?

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