Social Programs Enable Personal Responsibility

It is hard to argue that taking personal responsibility for your life is not a good thing. However, in America this has warped into an argument against most social programs. You’ll see the idea pop up often in arguments against the Covid-19 stimulus bill passed by Democrats where claims are made that it will discourage people from getting jobs and taking personal responsibility for their lives. In many ways, this results from a failure to distinguish between the individual and government.

Individual vs. Governmental Responsibility

Person to person, we encourage personal responsibility. It is something parents work to instill in their children by doing basic things like assigning chores. And we understand that accepting responsibility for your mistakes is key to personal growth. Getting more to the point at hand, if someone is trying to get a job and is being lazy or feeling discouraged it makes sense to encourage them to take personal responsibility by continuing proactive activities like making connections, sending out resumes, and applying to jobs. (Though, even here, if this encouragement takes the form of shaming, I’d argue that it is less than useful.) Perhaps you have some networking connections to offer, but it is highly likely that as an individual person you lack significant resources and encouraging someone to take personal responsibility is one of the main things you can do for a friend.

The impulse to categorize social welfare programs as discouraging to personal responsibility, is to apply these methods of encouragement to the government. However, the government, being a vast entity, is not designed to encourage personal responsibility in the same way. With its vast reach and resources, government, instead, can offer a framework for success. As such, the way government best encourages personal responsibility is very different from how an individual person would.

School works as a good example to illustrate these principles. To best educate children, a school will ideally have good teachers and supportive parents. They will provide the individual support necessary to encourage personal responsibility in children. However, all of this is infinitely more difficult without the proper framework. A good school needs buildings that aren’t moldy, computers that work, up-to-date textbooks, extracurriculars, and so on. In other words, it needs adequate funding and resources, which means it needs the support of the government.

What this Means

Frequently, the government’s job is exactly that — to provide the resources that enable people to succeed and take personal responsibility for their lives. Its goal is to provide a framework that allows all of society to succeed. For example, universal basic income (UBI) and public housing — both broached in various ways in the stimulus bill — aim for precisely this goal. Far from being beyond the pale, they are an extension of government providing a basic framework for society. While the data is admittedly limited and not entirely positive, these programs show promising signs of helping people to be more in control of their lives.

The model of housing first, giving people housing without any prior requirements, such as looking for employment, shows promise. It has been shown to reduce hospitalizations and improve quality of life. In Finland, where they have a nationwide housing first program, it has even been shown to reduce government costs because housed people use medical and judicial systems less. Data on employment appears to be scarce. I did find one study from Canada indicating that a housing first program reduced employment. However, the study period was short (two years) and hypothesized their result might have been different if the housing had been coupled with other programs (Finland’s program is coupled with many other social programs).

UBI has been tried experimentally from cities in the United States, to Brazil, to Iran, to Finland (A Vox article breaks many of the programs down). It has had positive effects such as improved happiness and health, school attendance, faith in social institutions, and a reduction in crime. It has had no discernable effect on disincentivizing people from working. In Stockton, California a UBI experiment was found to have increased employment. It allowed people more choice and more ability to set goals and take risks. In other words, it provided a framework for people to take more personal responsibility in their lives, not less.

What Comes Next

Admittedly there is a need for more data to assess the effectiveness of these fledgling programs to find out what works best. And that is exactly the role of government. To develop the framework that allows people to have more control and personal responsibility over their lives. With Covid-19 having long term negative effects on employment, there has never been a more pressing time to act than now.

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