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A welfare state for America, and for the world?

16 November 2012

This week saw the world’s first ever Global Sharing Day, a renewed focus on austerity and the welfare state in America, and an ingenious initiative from Occupy to free citizens from debt distress. Is it time for Occupy to also include a worldwide safety net as one of their campaign priorities? A roundup of recent news highlights.

Global Sharing Day

This week was the world's first ever day devoted to all things ‘sharing', spearheaded by the UK-based organisation The People Who Share. STWR participated in one of the main events in London on ‘Financing the Sharing Economy', in which we emphasised that the sharing economy isn't just a local phenomenon centred on new forms of collaborative consumption. At an evening event in the House of Commons, even the UK government got involved in a discussion on ‘The Sharing Economy: Our Democratic Future'. STWR's message for the day was summarised by the need to celebrate sharing in all its forms - including in relation to poverty, inequality and climate change. 

As we posted on Facebook: "Not only is sharing a natural human behaviour practised in families and communities for generations, sharing also underpins national systems of welfare as well as international aid. Today, these large-scale systems of sharing are being undermined, especially as a result of austerity measures. Meanwhile, some 40,000 people are still dying from poverty-related deaths each day, and we have done little to reverse climate change. On Global Sharing Day, let's remember that strengthening sharing at all levels of society has the potential to prevent needless poverty and create a sustainable world. For this to happen, the incentive for sharing has to be primarily humanitarian and environmental, not just purely financial."

Recommended reading: see the recent article by Neal Gorenflo, founder of Shareables, that raises the question of how sharing can address the world's greatest challenges and offer a new, inspiring way forward for society.

Austerity and the welfare state in America

There is growing attention in America on the issues of economic austerity and the welfare state. While a mass gathering with over a hundred meetings took place at Firenze 10+10 in Florence, Italy, under the heading ‘Our Democracy instead of Their Austerity', the U.S. has started to shift attention to this issue with much discussion on the alternative newswires of the growing global movement against austerity. This is not surprising considering the unprecedented assault on social welfare programs that is in the pipeline, with potentially devastating ‘reforms' to Medicare, Medicaid and other social entitlements.

To put this in context, two reports were released this week that revealed the dire and worsening social situation in the U.S. According to new figures from the Census Bureau, the ranks of the unemployed in America rose to 49.7 million last year, with a revised poverty rate of 16.1 percent of the population. And according to Pew Charitable Trusts, families living in poor neighbourhoods in the U.S. suffered an extreme loss of wealth during the Great Recession, with households living in high-poverty neighbourhoods witnessing a 91 percent decline in their overall wealth over the course of the downturn.

It is therefore welcoming to detect a renewed focus on the welfare state in America, as highlighted in the November issue of In These Times that ran a headline article and editorial on this theme and proposed an anti-austerity campaign that focuses on the expansion of government social welfare programs. As STWR wrote in a blog post that heralded the example of In These Times in loudly proclaiming the welfare state: "it is essential that more and more progressives follow [In These Times'] example in advocating the importance of sharing on a nationwide level - which is exactly what the universal provision of social welfare is all about. If we are to overcome the divisive work of right-wing politicians who have deluded people into thinking that publicly-provided welfare is undesirable, there is no better place to start than proudly hailing such terms as ‘economic sharing', ‘social democracy' and - particularly for those campaigners in America - the ‘welfare state'. Contrary to much distorted public opinion, these terms are not dirty words but remain the greatest source of hope for a more democratic, free and peaceful future."

Tax justice for America - and for the world?

A report was released this week by the Institute of Policy Studies on a business-driven initiative called The Fix the Debt campaign which, as the report details, is using the so-called "fiscal cliff" as a cover for tax-code changes that would benefit corporations at the expense of ordinary people and the economy. Alongside its analysis of the corporate gains that would result if Congress approves the controversial reform and tax cut proposals, the report also details what ‘fair tax reform' would look like. This includes such measures as stopping tax haven abuse, ending tax breaks and tax loopholes for the ultra-rich, taxing corporate profits more effectively, and support for a financial transactions tax - all forms of ‘tax justice' that echo the concerns of many other campaign groups around the world, as detailed in STWR's recent report on the global sharing economy. 

Recommended listening: The Other America is a one-hour mp3 audio from Kontext TV that evaluates Obama's first term, the crisis in the USA and last years protest movement, and discusses what an alternative agenda for America could look like. The cast of interviews include Amy Goodman, Michael Albert, Bill McKibben and Susan George among others.

A bailout of the people, by the people

Also this week in America, media attention shifted back to Occupy with their brilliant initiative that went live on Monday to raise money to buy up ‘distressed debt' from the markets, and then abolish it to help free the debtors. "Together we can liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support, good will, and collective refusal," says the campaign website, Rolling Jubilee, that is already on its way to abolishing over $5 million of debt. The campaign is part of the Strike Debt! coalition of Occupy groups, in which "debt resistance is just the beginning". Occupy Wall Street say: "People shouldn't have to go into debt for an education, because they need medical care, or to put food on the table during hard times. We shouldn't have to pay endless interest to the 1% for basic necessities. Big banks and corporations walk away from their debts and leave taxpayers to pick up the tab. It's time for a bailout of the people, by the people."

Recommended reading: Charles Eisenstein's piece in The Guardian on why the Rolling Jubilee is a genius move, and the nef's interesting take on the initiative.

A worldwide social safety net?

Shifting our focus from America to the South Asian context, Tina Ebro has written an article on social protection and access to essential services following the Plenary Meeting of the 9th Asia-Europe People's Forum in Vientiane, Laos. Ebro looks at what ‘the 99% versus the 1%' slogan means on a truly global basis, in which 1.5 billion people confront a crisis of survival each day without any form of social protection or access to basic services. The article highlights the important work of the United Nations that demonstrates how transformative social protection is both affordable and feasible, with an emphasis on universal coverage and basic human rights. Similarly to STWR's report on financing the global sharing economy, it also highlights five of the key global policy measures that could fund transformative social protection for the world's poor, with a focus on tax and debt justice. Perhaps this is a conversation that Occupy should join: how can people power force governments to implement a safety net for the world as a foremost public priority?

Recommended further reading: see the Final Declaration: 9th Asia-Europe People's Forum, and the United Nations recent proposal for a $20bn global fund to promote the creation of social safety nets for the most vulnerable people in poor countries.