Equity and Eligibility

Enough of the preliminary facts; let’s move on to principles. A public sidewalk is the sort of thing that many people think of when they think of the government. It is the common property of everyone in the community, and everyone in the community, regardless of who they are and where they are from, has an equal right to walk down it. On a public sidewalk, everyone is equal. Most public services, however, are not like a public sidewalk. Less than 20 percent of all public spending – federal, state and local — is on services that everyone can experience, or have an equal right to experience, on any given day. Even adding in the military, space research, legislators and other central administrators, categories of government that do not benefit people directly but, one might argue, benefit all people indirectly to an equal extent, “general” services still account for just one third of all public expenditures. Debts and pension payments, for which no public services are received, accounting for about one-sixth. About half of all public spending goes only to those who are eligible to receive services and benefits, based on criteria, rules, regulations, and applications accepted and denied. The next three weeks of posts will be a review of public benefits and services that aren’t available to everyone, and of the fairness of the philosophical foundation and practical criteria that are used to determine who does and does not get them. Read them all, and I personally guarantee you’ll never think about any public policy issue the same way again.

The theoretical criteria include age, means (income and wealth), and special needs (disability). The actual criteria also include the “hope no one shows up” and “thin edge of the wedge” strategies, “feudalism” (tenure), the “golden rule” (benefits limited to those with higher incomes), and “merit” evaluations. The overview shows that the further one moves away from universal benefits and services, the more complicated, unpopular, and inequitable such benefits become. And it is increasingly the better off, the better organized, and better connected, and those with a greater sense of entitlement, not the needy, who are accessing such benefits and services. And no one, not “liberals,” not “conservatives,” not Republicans, not Democrats, are thinking about this systematically, confronting its implications. I will attempt to do so.