My American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language defines a welfare state as “A social system whereby the state assumes primary responsibility for the welfare of citizens.” This definition didn’t say ALL citizens. So, it seems it’s open for interpretation. Also, what is meant by social system? A definition of the term social system is not presented per se. As I see it our social system is basically rooted in the economic system known as capitalism. If one doesn’t understand the implications of capitalism’s consequences on society then one would barely know the essence of the American culture- it’s beliefs and values.
Going back in history to about 1,600 BC in the Middle East, one can learn of a legal system known as Hammurabi’s Code which posited “The first duty of government is to protect the powerless against the powerful.” When considering capitalism one should realize the powerful are those who have an economic interest in exploiting the powerless not protecting them. But, in the USA most workers are reluctant to acknowledge how powerless they are. One reason American workers don’t think about being powerless is because the corporate media always reminds them they have the highest standard of living in the world. This is not factually true. Scandinavian countries have a higher standard of living of which too many Americans are unaware. One reason for those countries having higher standards of living is because they have a greater percentage of their workers belonging to militant unions.
What should be obvious is that American companies have overseas manufacturing facilities because workers there are without social security, unemployment benefits, and have very few unions to engage in collective bargaining to obtain wages and benefits comparable to what Scandinavian workers have. Unfortunately American workers aren’t likely to understand how powerless they are until they find themselves out of work because their employer has decided to send their jobs overseas. At that point some might realize how powerless they are and better understand the exploitative nature capitalism.
Then too, there are many corporations in the US where most of the employees make only minimum wage, with no benefits such as paid sick leave and vacations – think fast food chains and convenience stores. Corporate executives of those enterprises vehemently object to doubling the minimum wage. Considering the minimum wage as a living wage at this time is ludicrous. It lacks credibility; it’s basically immoral. I used to tell my students capitalism doesn’t have morality built into how it functions. When considering the minimum wage in this time, it’s officially recognized by the US Bureau of Labor statistics that a married couple, both working at minimum wage jobs, and having two children, are living below the recognized poverty level.
To sum up I quote British economist John Maynard Keynes (whose ideas influenced FDR’s economic policies.) “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.”
Philip Reiss is a retired SUNY community college history professor now living in Bethlehem, PA.