Why Care For The Stranger? Assessing The Tension Between Individual And Collective Responsibility In Meeting Social Welfare Needs Essay Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Welfare, Politics, Social Issues, Sociology, Responsibility, Socialism, Government, America

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2020/11/16

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American politics have been divided on a number of major issues for generations, and social welfare is no exception. Generally, there are two schools of thought. Liberals, most commonly associated with the Democratic Party, are in favor of a collective responsibility for the welfare of the poor. Generally, they believe that all American’s have a responsibility to provide for the welfare of the less fortunate, and to ensure that even strangers are provided with the basics for their well-being. Conversely, conservatives, most often associated with the Republican Party, are dedicated to the idea of Individual Responsibility, which demands that every man fend-for-himself, or take personal responsibility for their wellbeing. As a result, America has long sent the weak mixed messages about what social services they can rely on, and it can be difficult to determine how far to take “collective responsibility” with regard to personal well fare.

Liberalism and the Idea of Collective Responsibility

Collective responsibility is the idea that we are commonly responsible for one another’s basic needs and wellbeing, that we have a social responsibility to provide food, water, and shelter to those who cannot obtain those things for themselves (“Collectivism VS. Individualism,” n.d.). According to Morris Fiorina, collective responsibility has only come into existence through the agency of the political system, and most typically with the support of a specific political party (1980).
The first major example of Collective Responsibility, or of responsibility being placed on the shoulders of the people for political purposes, is the New Deal, which prevented the further deterioration of the Democratic Party, and slowed the damage the great depression was causing to the American economy (Fiorina, M., 1980). The New Deal was a series of policies put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after he became president in 1933, which were designed to provide relief to those who had the hardest life, at the bottom of the economic pyramid (“The New Deal”, 2014). However, he did not necessarily see the New Deal as supporting collective responsibility. He did not want to make man responsible for his peers, but rather to help man be more responsible for himself.
In his acceptance speech for his presidential nomination he said he intended to his authority in the government to organize avenues of self-help He further defined this purpose, or his embrace of government collective responsibility and individual responsibility in September of 1933, when he said that the government should only work to regulate the economy and provide social welfare programs where there was not alternative, or as a last resort, and that it should be used to inspire private initiative, and responsibility (“The New Deal”, 2014). The new deal included banking regulation, economic preservation, beer and wine taxes, the creation of federally paid jobs for civilians, the release of local relief monies, the first agricultural subsidies, and federal securities changes for businesses, among others.
While Roosevelt clearly considered the programs enacted under the New Deal as temporary measures, intended to provide economic relief and provide people with an immediate way to pay for their needs, and which he believed would pass away with the end of the depression, the reality is that some pieces of his policy remain in effect today as ongoing elements of social welfare and collective responsibility; most importantly social security.
The country largely abandoned the idea of social responsibility until a wave of charity in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination allowed Lyndon B. Johnson to push through “The Great Society,” a bill, or series of policies, which sought to ensure that all people, regardless of class, race or income, had access to the same basic rights and opportunities (The Miller Center, 2014). While The New Deal had allowed the government to use discretionary income, tax funds, and government implemented development programs to support the people during the depression, the Great Society created a long-term plan for establishing a welfare state, which robbed from the rich and gave to the poor in a truly RobinHoodian fashion (Parla, K., n.d.).
Johnson declared war on poverty, pouring money into schools in underprivileged areas, establishing HUD (as we know it today), setting up Medicare, and more. In short, in his one year in office, he more than doubled the amount of money directly funneling into welfare for the poorest communities in the nation, and hoping to stimulate the economy so that the number of those living below the poverty line would continue to decrease as it had in the early years of the New Deal (The Miller Center, 2014).
During the Paradoxical Era the followed, democratic president Carter, and Republican candidates Ford and Nixon continued to expand the policies started by Johnson, though they appeared to do so with more hesitancy and a greater degree of conservativism, leading to the era being titled the paradoxical years (Viar, J., 2013). Carter was very conservative for a Democrat, and generally favored a cut in federal spending, and was against the extremely large social welfare programs that Johnson had implemented.
Though he did not stand against social welfare and collective responsibility, he did attempt to completely overhaul the existing welfare system while he was in office (Carter, J. 1977). His efforts failed, and today he is remembered for making little to no changes during his presidency, and for having a blind indifference to the needs of the poor (Hayward, S., 2009). He did however, set the stage for a shift toward Republican welfare policy, and the introduction of increased conservativism during the years that followed.
After several decades of entrenchment, or a reduction in spending, Obama came to office, known for his socialist agenda and managed to push through the Affordable Care Act, a national health care reform initiative and insurance program which Clinton had only dreamed about during his presidency. Clinton had worked to pass a healthcare reform act in the mid-1990s, which was his only substantial dedication to social welfare reform during his presidency, but it had failed to gain traction (Moffit, R., 1993).
Obama, however, came to the office with a very socially driven platform. Forbes has gone so far to label him a socialist, in that he is dedicated to creating a social state that demands national, or collective, responsibility for health care, pensions, unemployment benefits, income grants, increased funding of education, and a variety of other social welfare topics, with little to no regard for the public cost of such programs (Gregory, P., 2012). Obama, and the democratic parties rising commitment to the concept of collective responsibility has reached it’s peak during the Obama administration, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the ongoing expansion of a variety of welfare programs.
More specifically, Obama began by repealing TANF, or the legal legislature that ensured that those who were able-bodied and accepting public assistance were actively looking for work (Rector, R & Bradley, K., 2012). He also pushed for, and succeeded in establishing the first attempt at national healthcare, known as the Affordable Care Act, which established the need for collective responsibility with regard to the average American’s inability to maintain health insurance, and which was considered a major step forward in terms of public health care, and collective responsibility (Sreenivasan, H. & Brown, J., 2013). These analysts agree that long term, a government sponsored, low cost, healthcare option will become part of the American way of life and a fully accepted part of the social system just like Social Security and Medicaid are (2013).
It is not surprising that Obama has moved as far to the “left” as we have even seen a president go, given his history of speaking out in favor of social responsibility over individual liberty since at least 2005 (Stepman, J., 2013). He has openly berated the idea of ownership and noted that the collective good should always be at the center of the government’s action, placing himself at the panicle of collective responsibility politics (Stepman, J., 2013).
It is clear to see that the Democratic party, with the exception of the notably conservative Carter, have ridden a rising tide of commitment to the idea of a government supported social state, and increasing collective responsibility. Roosevelt, the founder of welfare as we know it, intended his programs to be a last ditch effort to save the economy and to serve only as a temporary solution to what he saw as a momentary crisis, and yet his policies have become the groundwork for a much larger, and more long-term welfare program, designed to maintain care of the poor. Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was considered an extremist during his era, seems conservative when compared to the total collective agency that is described by Obama’s ideology, which has no regard for the cost of the programs created in order to seek the welfare of the collective, which is fundamentally viewed as paramount to the rights of the individual. It begs the question, what does the future of liberalism and collective responsibility look like for the Democratic Party if they continue their current trend.

Conservativism and the Idea of Individual Responsibility

Individual responsibility is the idea that we are solely responsible for our own condition, and meeting basic needs and providing for wellbeing, lies with the individual (“Collectivism VS. Individualism,” n.d.). The Republican Party considers personal responsibility, which it has come to call personal freedom, one of its platform basics (“Vermont Republican Party Platform,” 2014).
Just as it can be demonstrated that the Democratic party began with a more conservative view of collective responsibility and shifted further and further toward a totally government controlled, socially structured system, Republican’s seem to have begun making their policy choices based on a more liberal definition of personal freedom, and slowly shifted to a greater and greater demand for separation of government and personal welfare.
In the years immediately following Carter’s relatively conservative Democratic years two republicans came into office, Nixon and Ford. These men’s presidencies, together with Carter make of the “paradoxical era” of social policy, because the republicans in office often acted with a high regard for the common welfare (Jansson, B., 2008).
Nixon is publically remembered as conservative, with little outward desire to enact social change, and yet, according to at least one analyst, the social reform that he instituted, and the government spending on welfare programs enacted during Nixon’s presidency, and with bipartisan support, by far outweighed the reforms made by Johnson. (Levitan, S., 1969). However, Levitan’s description of Nixon’s importance to the development of the social welfare system might be exaggerated, given the fact that Nixon’s created no new programs of his own, but rather expanded, reorganized, and revised those programs which he had inherited from his predecessors (Jansson, B., 2008). Changes he made to those policies included altering social security and SSI, revising the food stamp program, and expanding the public health act. He certainly did not act as a modern conservative, in an attempt to squash any and all policy that demands collective agency, and yet he verbally stood opposed to their spending. In fact, during his second term in office, Nixon very publically opposed the spending and refused to release the funds that had been appropriated to them, impounding the money, and berating the policies and costly, ineffective, and wasteful (Viar, J., 2013). In these opinions you begin to see a shift that would later lead to the repeal or complete renovation of many of the social policies put in place by his democratic predecessors.
Ford continued in Nixon’s footsteps, putting the nation into what would later be called a “reluctant welfare state,” or a position in which the president continued to support certain social welfare initiatives, but worked to budget conservatively, to limit government interference, and to veto new policies (Jansson, B., 2011). Ford’s generous use of his presidential veto demonstrated that he was even more conservative, or more dedicated to individual responsibility than Nixon, arguing that the shift away from Government intervention would serve the best interest of the poor long term (Freidel, F. & Sidey, H., 2006).
It is exactly this means of thinking that would lead to the next great political era, known as the conservative counterrevolution, or the Retrenchment era. In fact, Paul Pierson goes so far as to credit Regan with dismantling the welfare state as we knew it, and reforming it in a way that would demand greater personal responsibility (1994).
More specifically, in 1980, with the American economy truly in jeopardy, Regan began working to downsize the government and the roll that it played in the day to day life of citizens and social welfare (Shiff, P., 2008). Though he did this specifically with the idea of saving money in mind, the premise was still that government had gotten to large and too involved in individual matters, and that a retrenchment was needed.
More specifically, Regan saw the government as complicit it making the poor increasingly dependent on the government and he claimed that his greatest effort would be to free them from the dependency they were trapped in (Pear, R., 1985). He did so by slashing the amount of funding that went to a variety of welfare programs, especially those that solely benefitted women, children, and minority citizens.
He also, beyond the shadow of a doubt understood that the poor, which and long relied on the government for their support, but now must have some means of providing for themselves in order to survive the cuts to public funding. In order to create these job opportunities, Regan invested in private-public partnerships that helped American businesses to expand with the support of the government, in exchange for the creation of jobs that were suitable for the poorest Americans (Berger, R., 1986).
He wanted to replace the welfare works that had been launched in a time of great need and replace them with policies that would drive able bodied families back into the workplace (Pear R., 1986). However this seeming abhorrence of the social dependency of the welfare system, and increased individual responsibility did not mean that Reagan was opposed to all programs that relied on collective responsibility. In fact he sought to expand several programs services including Medicare services for prolonged illness, and maintain the social security benefits available to the elderly (Pear R., 1986). Finally, Regan sought to put more of the social welfare burden back on the states, a process that became known as devolution (Pearson, H., 2013).
Today, the Republican party speaks out vehemently against Obama’s policies and the social welfare operatives of the Democratic party, fighting to reduce the government’s spending and its involvement in people’s private lines. The passion with which they have resisted Obama’s every effort for change makes it clear that the Republican Party, have moved increasingly toward the idea of a decentralized federal government that supports individual liberty and responsibility. Though early Republicans like Nixon seemed to take more lax stance with regard to the development of social programs, it is clear that Reagan fought for most of his pregnancy to cut federal spending through “Reaganomics” and to eliminate those federal programs which he deemed most harmful to the independence of the American public. With increasing cries for a reduced government interference in public life, one must wonder what the next Republican American president will do to try to repeal or offset the damage done to the Republican cause by the Obama administration.


Since the time that the New Deal was forged, a dichotomy among the two major political parties was clear. The Democrats called for a very strong national government that established social and economic norms for all people, while the Republicans called for a small national government that shied away from collective responsibility instead favoring individual initiative (Loevy, R., 2005). And, realistically, arguments can be made for both sides.
Research conclusively demonstrates that the social reforms put in place by the democrats have altered the way the American people live. They have substantially reduced the poverty of older Americans, but has failed to actually eliminate the asset gap ratio between the races (Rogne, L., et al, 2009). However, the workings of the collective responsibility have also created an impossibly high nation debt, which is expected to exceed $20 trillion by the end of 2016, with welfare efforts or payments for individual debits to the national budget, making up more than 70% of the total governmental expenditures (Vanyo, B., 2015).
These numbers are especially interesting when viewed through the lens of the social workers responsibility to broader society. A social worker is constantly working to balance the dual responsibility that he or she has to meet both a client’s needs and the best interest of the broader society. In essence, the American government, and its presidential figurehead are simply doing the same thing, they are trying to navigate the delicate balance of individual needs and liberties, as they compare to and impact that those needs have on the group, or the collective welfare of the group as a whole.
These policies can also be viewed with regard to the NASW ethical principles which try to define a broader base of ethics for those working to maintain the welfare of the public. The ethical principles state that you must maintain a precarious balance between service, social justice, dignity, and worth of the person, integrity, competence and the value of human relationships.
Achieving this same balance is, or should be the goal of the governmental powers that decide on social welfare policy and programs. After all, they are essentially working as the ultimate social worker, constantly weighing the balance of collective and individual responsibility, and deciding what needs should and must be met, and what constitutes unfair interference. Keeping these end goals in mind may help both conservatives and liberals achieve greater balance in their policy making going forward.


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