The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 25, 2013

Jim Scofield | On human – and humane – benefits, U.S. could learn from others

Jim Scofield

— The American press typically slams the European welfare states, playing to our traditional Puritan prejudices.

An April 20 New York Times article makes fun of how even Danes are “starting to rethink a welfare state ample to a fault,” in which some apparently lazy people have been collecting over-generous sums for years.

However, what this article reveals in passing is that, in Denmark, citizens have free health care (universal in all wealthy countries but ours), free university educations, generous child-care subsidies, and more time off (they work 16 percent less than Americans do).

They have numerous other public services not mentioned by The New York Times – paid parental leave, paid sick leave, six weeks of paid vacation, 48 months of generous unemployment compensation (ours is  six months, with some extensions), and Denmark spends about the same percentage of its budget on retraining the jobless as the United States does on its military.

The minimum wage is almost $20 per hour! And a higher percentage of Danes hold jobs than do Americans.

Conditions there really sound terrible for most people, don’t they?

It’s true that some economies in southern Europe are failing in this recession – Greece, Spain and Portugal, for example. And they get lots of publicity here. 

However, it is certainly true that those who live in Germany, the Scandinavian countries, France and Holland, among others, get a better deal than do average Americans.

Our rich, of course, have a super deal. Income is much more unequal here. Our ratio of CEO pay is more than 10 to 20 times that in European countries. A Federal Reserve study showed that our wealthiest 10 percent own 70 percent of the wealth, whereas in Germany, the top 10 percent own 44 percent. 

Our press and entertainment industry play up the dream of great wealth in worshipful biographical detail. 

This dream substitutes  for the reality of a better life for the many.

In the most recent presidential campaign, both American political parties avoided much mention of our high poverty rates. Embarrassed, perhaps, they speak only to “the middle class.”

Taxes are higher in Europe, but most citizens get more for it. If we include American health care costs for an average family of four – more than $15,000, according to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation survey – our overall costs may be more than those of high-tax countries.

It’s true that in terms of per-capita incomes, Americans are definitely ahead. But from these incomes we have to buy many of the important needs and services Europeans are generally given. What is the difference in disposable income? And Americans work for this income many more weeks per year than do Europeans.

Many workers here have no paid vacation, no sick leave at all. Even the new health care law won’t cover everyone. 

And our health costs are up to twice as expensive per person as those in other countries, besides being decidedly worse in average health outcomes (life expectancy, infant mortality, e.g.).

Way too much goes to American insurance companies. Nowhere else are health care debts  the leading cause of bankruptcy.

Larger parts of the workforces are unionized in Europe, part of the reason labor has more benefits. Also, most big businesses are required to have work councils, elected groups of workers who have a say in their work conditions and in management decisions. By contrast, U.S. labor laws are decidedly anti-union, one reason membership has radically declined.

During the current recession, many German businesses spread out the work by reducing hours, instead of laying off employees. The government subsidized a good part of the lost wages.

The favoritism of business over labor should be obvious in the United States. Both the Republican and Democratic administrations have bailed out the big banks with $700 billion, plus trillions in backup protection, all with no strings attached for the banks. 

So, for being saved, they didn’t have to make stimulating loans with this money, nor forgo paying their executives and brokers huge multimillion-dollar salaries.

Neither administration proposed a government jobs program for workers, as the Roosevelt administration did during the Great Depression. Thus, the banks are flourishing, and unemployment is still massive. Government aid goes mainly one way!

Our economic individualism is largely a myth. Most successful people had lots of advantages; most unemployed want a job.

Generous welfare outlays in Europe don’t undercut economic competitiveness. But this myth, along with standard propaganda, allows us to reject without debate many of the human and humane benefits available elsewhere.

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is an associate professor emeritus at Pitt-Johnstown.   


Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.