Where’s Our Safety Net?

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There’s an article in the latest issue (September 20, 2010) of The Nation titled “It’s Better Over There” that’s about the safety net that exists in Europe (specifically Germany) that doesn’t exist in the U.S. The author, Katha Pollitt, who is a columnist for The Nation (among other things), just came back from spending a year in Berlin and her report about how things are for the poor and the middle class in an economy that is hurting (although in better shape than ours) really made me think.

Here are some of the things Germans have that much of the U.S. doesn’t:

  • Six weeks of vacation and twenty-seven paid holidays.
  • Job security and retirement pensions.
  • Free, or nearly free education, including college.
  • Healthcare including nursing. (The German system requires everyone to buy insurance, but provides subsidies for low earners. Sound familiar?)
  • A government that provides partial compensation for lost wages and encourages companies to shorten hours rather than lay people off.
  • Paid maternity and maternity leave. [For international comparisons of parental leave policies, go here.]

This isn’t to say that social democratic systems like Germany’s are perfect, but they must be doing something right: Germany’s unemployment rate is around 7-7.5 and the United States’ is over 9 and worsening. [Source.]

But just mention social democracy and conservatives go crazy. They assume that social democracy is socialism, pure and simple. It’s not. One definition of social democracy (the one that applies to Germany) is: “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.” It’s the “socialist” part that freaks conservatives out. But what social democracy means in practice is that the government is more hands-on in relation to issues that affect the common good. It’s not good for a country to have a high number of poor and unemployed. It costs everyone else a lot of money. It’s much better to spend that money making sure that workers are employed and spending their money. That’s what makes for a healthy economy.

It used to be that democracy meant “the rule of the majority.” But when you look at America today, you have to ask yourself if that’s still true. It seems to me that it is the wealthy and influential who rule America. And in their short-sighted desire to keep as much of their wealth and power as they can to themselves, they’ve robbed the majority of their right to make decisions that affect their very lives.

The term “majority” doesn’t mean the largest racial, religious or socioeconomic group. It means the most people overall. That means that minorities like blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the handicapped, Muslims, welfare recipients and the poor all have a right to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. And let’s not forget the largest group in this society: women. If we make up a majority of the population and of the workforce, why aren’t our needs being addressed?

I’ve written before about how vulnerable women are in our society. We have no maternity leave, fewer benefits, less pay and little or no support for the needs of our families. Women are often forced to work part-time because they can’t afford to pay for full-time child care (and women are still thought of as the primary child-care providers. Elder care also falls unfairly on the shoulders of women).

But this isn’t just a women’s issue. All of us are at risk. If our families aren’t protected and provided for, then what good is our government anyway?

We don’t have to identify as a social democracy in order to start caring for all our people. Returning to the original meaning of democracy would be enough.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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