A case for safety nets | Ott Observations

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I was reading recently about the enhanced child tax credit (part of the COVID economic relief package) and its impact on families in poverty.

Besides increasing the dollar amount, the credit is being distributed monthly rather than once a year.  This temporary relief plan is being studied as a potential long-term strategy to battle child poverty, much as Social Security was created to lift seniors out of poverty. Approximately 4 million of our most impoverished children are being helped with a steady income stream.

This information got me thinking about social safety nets. Many of us in Monroe County are living comfortable lives. We work hard, make ourselves successful and are proud of what we’ve accomplished … justifiably so.  

Our personal experience with earning our success reinforces a philosophical belief about our country – that success in America is the result of individual effort and self-reliance.  For many, this is the basis for their loyal support of the Republican Party, which tends to look at safety nets as “entitlement” programs to eliminate or defund.  

What is rarely said but always implied is that those who fail didn’t try hard enough and don’t deserve any help from their government, which is financially supported by us hard working taxpayers.  

This sounds great and is an earn-your-way concept I’ve tried to teach my children. But it bothers me that in practical application, it too often is too simplistic and doesn’t work.  

For example, let’s look at our own children. We provide them with everything they need to succeed … a safe home environment, healthcare, life guidance, a moral upbringing and a good education. Yet many stumble out of the gate. They suffer from depression, anxiety or low self esteem. They succumb to alcohol or drug addiction.  They drop out of college, lose good jobs or get into financial trouble. 

We’re their safety net.  They come back home, we help them get reoriented and in most cases, the next try is more successful. 

But what if we weren’t there to help? How many children out there aren’t getting the guidance and support they need to make their own way?

Over half our adult population, about 125 million Americans, live paycheck to paycheck. It takes every penny they’re making just to survive to their next payday. The children of such families are not like our children, having a family safety net. These families are one illness, one death, one job layoff, one accident, one divorce or abandonment, one air-conditioner failure, or one car repair from financial distress.  

Where’s their safety net? Consider that over the past year, the St. Louis Area Food Bank helped over 430,000 people in our regional area eat.

Opponents of social safety nets often justify their position by stating the need to fight a national decline into Socialism, or that their taxes are already too high. If we define socialism as any government program that only helps some people, at the expense of others, I’m not sure any function of government would pass such a “socialism test.”

Even the Department of Agriculture wouldn’t make the cut. As to taxes, the latest Treasury Department report noted that the U.S. is losing $163 billion per year due to tax evasion by the top 1 percent of earners. If they paid their taxes, their opulent lifestyles wouldn’t even be affected.  That money alone would be a great running start to fund some social safety nets without having to raise anyone’s taxes. 

When pandemic control measures shut down our economy, our government had to provide a temporary safety net to a lot of people. As our economy begins to return to normal, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to stop some of the aid, looking at programs like the enhanced child tax credit as a sustainable safety net. 

My own thinking has changed in two ways. One, I’m not so much proud of my financial success as I am grateful. When I consider those 125 million struggling to pay their bills, I now think “there I go but for the grace of God.” My other realization is that no matter how much higher my taxes are, I still live a comfortable life and can afford to do what I want.  

Meanwhile, I sure sleep better at night knowing some of my tax money is making sure 4 million kids aren’t going to bed hungry. 

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