Sunday 8 December 2013

Social culture and the welfare divide

Bold bid by Govt for consensus on how to help poor people level up
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2013

THE Government's point man on social and economic policy this week gave a speech that sought to straddle the political divide on government help for the poor and needy.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam coined a term, "social culture", which he said both conservatives and progressives should be concerned about.

Just what is social culture?

He described it as "the values and norms, and especially the willingness of individuals to take responsibility for themselves and their families, and to support others", and he argued that "this social culture matters in building the good society".

"Those who count themselves as socially progressive have to be deeply concerned about social culture, not just conservatives. The invisible hand of social culture is at least as powerful as the invisible hand of the market," he said, delivering this year's S. Rajaratnam Lecture on Monday.

"Policies to redistribute resources and level up the poor can hence only succeed and be sustained if they are designed to encourage a culture of personal responsibility - in the family, in education and at work - and if they promote collective responsibility among everyone, to improve the lives of others and the community we live in. I believe there is this space for active government policies that level up those who start with less, in a way that reinforces the values and ethos needed to sustain a dynamic and fair society, one that all citizens contribute to and can be proud of. There is space for this true progressivism," he added.

At first glance, there seems little to object to here. Who would argue against self-reliance and responsibility? But critical views have surfaced online, and among the first to question Mr Tharman's concept of social culture was Dr Daniel Goh, a sociologist who is also a member of the Workers' Party.

He quipped that social culture had the whiff of "good ol' Asian values", harking back to an early- 1990s argument championed by then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee had argued then that Asians' preference for collective well-being and social harmony was at odds with the individualism and dissent prized in liberal democracies.

This time though, social culture, Dr Goh observed, "is not pitched against the evils of Western individualism, but the new threat of the culture of entitlement - that is, entitlement to state welfare support".

"The trouble with Asian values and, now, social culture is that they distract us from the underlying cause - unbridled capitalism - of the problems of individualism and inequality, and place the blame wholly on individual psychology," he added.

Therein lies the divide between conservatives and progressives on redistributive policies.

Conservatives are ever wary of breeding dependency among recipients of government aid, and anxious about the fiscal sustainability of social transfers.

Progressives, on the other hand, tend to view those on lower incomes as the hapless victims of capitalism run riot, and champion their right to greater state support in areas such as health, pensions and unemployment benefits.

Mr Tharman's innovation is in his claim that Singapore can bridge this divide and address the concerns at both ends of the political spectrum, through well-designed policies which somehow manage to level up those at risk of lagging behind and yet spur self-reliance.

It is a bold bid for consensus on an issue that has polarised electorates in the West, and I for one hope that Singapore can succeed where few other advanced countries have.

Dr Goh worries that this concept of social culture will result in the poor being blamed for their own plight due to their "individual psychology".

But there is a difference between arguing that policies influence a society's norms and ethos, as Mr Tharman did in his speech, and labelling citizens as either strivers or scroungers, and saying the latter are themselves to blame for their troubles.

In designing policies, it would be foolhardy to close one's eyes to the real risks of incentivising choices and behaviours that could, over time, undermine self- reliance.

Those who doubt the sincerity of the social culture argument may view it as the latest government tagline to justify the reining in of social spending and the status quo of fiscal conservatism.

But the examples that Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, cites in his speech suggest that he is not making an argument to spend less but to spend wisely, because what matters is "not how much we redistribute but how we do so".

On social mobility, he cites US studies that show that traditional redistributive policies, such as tax credits for lower-income families, explain only a small portion of mobility differences, once other factors are taken into account.

He quotes Nobel laureate James Heckman who warned that it was a mistake to think just giving families more would improve children's prospects.

He uses this to explain why the Government has chosen instead to intervene in other ways, by providing better-quality pre-schooling at affordable rates, for instance, and investing resources to detect early learning difficulties in children.

Such strategies might well cost more than higher handouts to poor families, though the outlay would be less obvious and quantifiable than straight-out transfers.

The second example Mr Tharman cites concerns benefits for those who are not working due to illness or disability.

He cites surveys in Sweden which point to an erosion of the work ethic over the last 40 years, in tandem with the expansion of its welfare state - which has grown to include generous sick leave and disability benefits.

He did not, however, propose a better alternative to support those who find themselves unable to work. Perhaps the answer lies in the Government's continuing education and training programmes, in which it has invested billions.

What I take away from his speech on social culture is that even as this Government moves to enlarge and enhance state social support for the poor and needy, it has a clear bottom line.

It wants to avoid at all costs giving people easy options that could undermine their drive to improve their own lot through education, work and home ownership.

The discussion thus far on income inequality and slowing social mobility has tended to focus largely on material advantage and disadvantage. In highlighting the role of culture, Mr Tharman is drawing in other elements which are just as crucial - of norms, values and character.

Surely no discussion of a good society would be complete without taking into account these intangibles.

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