This article was originally published in Profectus Magazine.
I once attended a dinner where the keynote speaker was Mike Rowe. As a lover of “Dirty Jobs,” and someone who was interested in alternatives to traditional higher education, I was excited to hear what the show’s host had to say. He did not disappoint. After telling a somewhat rambling story about castrating sheep, he said something that still sticks with me. He took issue with the phrase “safety first.” Instead, he proposed that we should consider adopting the (tongue-in-cheek) mantra “safety third,” if we had to rank it at all. The point wasn’t that there were two things more important than safety, but rather that other goals are also important and, most significantly, by adopting the “safety first” mantra, we were essentially outsourcing the responsibility of keeping ourselves safe. In practice, on the set of “Dirty Jobs,” dispensing with the “safety first” mantra meant that every crew member knew exactly where the ultimate responsibility for their safety fell—on themselves.
The trend of prioritizing safety and security above nearly all else has reached a fever pitch in our culture over the last few decades. Moreover, the trend has been accompanied by a consistent outsourcing of that guarantee of safety and security away from the individual and onto other authority figures. These trends have been less than helpful and might be a factor in the marked uptick in fragility we see on display across college campuses and among young adults now entering the workforce.
Perhaps even more troubling is the risk involved in adopting such an attitude when it comes to public policy more broadly—and the social safety net in particular. Left uncorrected, the obsession with achieving increasingly higher levels of safety and security, rather than tailoring government programs toward dynamism and development, could wind up holding people back from achieving everything of which they are capable.
While a strong and effective social safety net is essential, creating an environment conducive to economic achievement and independence should be the ultimate goal. Our public policies should take care to prioritize economic dynamism over security when faced with the tradeoff. By encouraging skill development and incremental increases in personal capacity, dynamism provides people a greater opportunity to flourish, while policies intended to promote security and protection too often become barriers that must be overcome to truly thrive.
The evidence that the cult of safety-ism has spread across our culture is overwhelming. Despite the fact that the risk of children being kidnapped is at an all-time low, stories have emerged from around the country of parents being confronted, sometimes by law enforcement, for giving their kids any bit of reasonable independence. For example, in a Nevada suburb, an eight-year-old and his ten-year-old brother were escorted home by the fire department after someone called 911 to report “unsupervised children” after the two had the audacity to wander down to the end of a neighborhood block to gather rocks for a rock collection. In another incident, this time at a California Costco, a parent was chided by a child protective services employee for being twenty feet away from a four-year-old for about thirty seconds at the food court.
Even K–12 schools are getting caught up in the cult of safety-ism. There was the famous 2013 case of a seven-year-old Maryland student who was suspended for eating a pop tart into the shape of a gun. Or more recently, a UK school replaced recess with supervised activities in an attempt to eliminate bullying. Rather than being encouraged to work out disagreements among themselves, students are either told to seek out a teacher or another authority figure to solve the issue or are simply transitioning toward even more closely supervised activities.
This emphasis on safety isn’t disappearing as kids grow into young adults either. It now follows them into adolescence and even into college. The New York Times even popularized the term “snowplow parent” to describe the way in which certain parents were relentlessly pushing aside barriers for their kids, rather than trusting them with increasing amounts of responsibility to tackle these problems on their own. From calling teachers to argue over grades to even calling their kids’ employers to “solve” work disputes on their behalf, the actual task of resolving problems has been continually outsourced further into adulthood.
As kids become young adults and start attending college, these trends only intensify, even to the point of interfering with other goals such as ensuring an open intellectual environment. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, concerns about “microaggressions,” and the deplatforming of speakers that make anyone feel less than fully secure or comfortable are now commonplace. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have documented these phenomena, and the toll it takes on students’ mental health and wellbeing, in their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind. This picture hardly improves once these students graduate and enter the workforce. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has even published guidelines on how employers can help alleviate the stress and anxiety of younger workers, a much higher proportion of whom report feeling “overwhelming anxiety” than in previous years.
While these social trends are deeply concerning, the impulse toward prioritizing safety and security in public policy should not go unnoticed. Public policy is fundamentally about navigating tradeoffs. There are competing goals that are, in general, all good and worthy of attention. The key difference in political perspectives—particularly when they get into the weeds about this or that policy—usually has to do with how these different goals are prioritized. Without question, the past several decades of cultural and political changes have increasingly embraced the safety-first mentality, cementing safety and security as the ultimate goods to be prioritized.
Occupational laws that force would-be entrepreneurs or workers to obtain permission from the government to conduct business—often heavily influenced by potential competitors—are nearly always enacted under the guise of protecting public health and safety, despite scant evidence that such laws actually achieve those goals. Increasingly high minimum wage laws are enacted to protect workers from exploitation and ensure a “living wage” that is nudged ever upward. California’s AB5 law, which attempted to reclassify most gig workers as employees rather than as independent contractors, was designed to protect people from the “exploitative” arrangements that they had opted into.
Each of these policies comes with a tradeoff, and the choice to value safety, protection, and security often means that other worthy goals are pushed aside. We now know that occupational licensing laws are costly and likely reduce economic mobility. Higher minimum wages mean fewer entry-level employment opportunities over the long term, especially for younger workers and others with fewer skills and less experience. Laws that reclassify independent contractors as employees would break the business models of many gig economy companies and leave those who depend on such income with no opportunity to earn it. These are just a few examples; many more such policies could be mentioned.
The prioritization of safety and security over dynamism and development has a wide base of popular support, but this vision was best embodied by the Obama administration’s illustration of “The Life of Julia.” At every step of her life, the focus is on a government program designed for ever-present help and support, rather than oriented toward reforms encouraging development and independence. Instead of increasing parental choice in education and making it easier for different educational options to grow, Julia is supported by subsidies to early education and government grants to traditional higher education. Rather than introduce reforms to the healthcare system that empower consumers and increase transparency, Julia remains on her parents’ healthcare plan until she is old enough to receive her own government-provided healthcare assistance. When Julia decides to start her own business, she is assured that there are plenty of government-backed loans available to her but no mention of reducing expensive red-tape or streamlining taxes paid by entrepreneurs. And on and on.
More recently, as the country began to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy began reopening, federal lawmakers again chose to prioritize safety and security over dynamism and development. Rather than sunset the federally boosted unemployment benefits when it became clear that a plethora of jobs were both available and going unfilled, policymakers fought to keep the extensions that kept the unemployed out of the labor market. To their credit, a number of states bucked this trend and opted out of the extensions early, often wisely redirecting federal funding toward one-time “signing bonuses” intended to encourage able-bodied people to get back into the workforce.
Incentives matter and people will adjust their behavior based on the information and opportunities available to them. It’s true that there will always be a balance between ensuring safety and security on one side and encouraging dynamism and development on the other. The danger of too little safety and security is more obvious, but the danger of too little dynamism and development is more pernicious.
In describing how the “Dirty Jobs” crew went from relatively few injuries during the filming of the first few seasons to an alarming number in the following few, Mike Rowe explains how “risk compensation” affected the priorities of the crew. Simply put, risk compensation theory suggests that people typically adjust their behavior to perceived levels of risk. People are less likely to look both ways before crossing the road when they’re in a crosswalk. Motorcyclists who wear helmets tend to drive faster than those who don’t. In the case of the “Dirty Jobs” crew, the safety-first mantra, and the bureaucratically mandated practices that came along with it, made the crew feel safer and therefore free to take more risks—many of which did not turn out well.
Once the responsibility for wellbeing is sufficiently outsourced and the perceived risks of inaction are low enough, people become more prone to avoidable mistakes. At one point, Mike frankly stated, “We got complacent. We bought into this nonsense that somebody actually cares more about our well-being than we do.”
Occasionally, those attuned to this kind of risk in public policy will warn of people becoming “dependent” on government. Critics are quick to point out (correctly) that we all “depend” on government to some degree—at least those of us with modern lifestyles. We depend on national security and law enforcement to provide a degree of safety from physical threats. We depend on the rule of law to adjudicate conflicts and enforce property rights and contracts. More mundanely, many of us rely on some government transportation infrastructure to get around on a daily basis. There is a lot of dependence to go around.
However, if the discussion is permitted to move beyond easy caricatures, the real concern is that people will come to rely on an external force for subsistence rather than developing themselves into full agents able to navigate the world, and often increasingly on their terms as their capacity increases. The most pressing danger in prioritizing security over development is not the financial cost, but the opportunity cost of implementing yet another barrier, albeit a kinder and gentler one, against people becoming what they could be.
Recognizing this potential downside is not an argument against the social safety net. It is an argument for clearly and deliberately thinking about the goals and priorities for such programs. Embracing a posture toward dynamism and development means that the goal for these programs should be to support people on their journey toward flourishing. Changes to programs that are likely to encourage and incentivize skill development, the building of social and existential capital, or other kinds of self-improvement should be preferred over those that foster dependence, isolation, or extreme risk aversion. Basic needs should always be met for those with no other recourse, but the ultimate goal should be to give participants the incentive and ability to develop the skills needed to outgrow such assistance.
That is a very different priority than beginning from the premise that such assistance programs should prioritize safety—essentially a security that a person will never fall below a “floor” of an increasingly high standard of living, regardless of their choices. In addition to seeking to raise that floor and expand the term “basic needs” as far as politically possible, those seeking to grow the welfare state in this way typically want to increase the boundaries of eligibility, pushing the line for those able to qualify for such assistance further up the income ladder—rather than conserving resources for those truly in need. Another popular way of growing eligibility is to extend or do away with any kind of time limits on the participation in such programs—as recently demonstrated by the reluctance to phase out federally boosted unemployment benefits.
Finally, work and education requirements (any participant requirements, really) are slowly done away with as well, since participation in these assistance programs (and the keeping above the standard-of-living du jour) would be less safe and secure if they could be lost due to the action or inaction of the participants themselves. Of course, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the apotheosis of this framework; it’s universal, unconditional, and has no time limit.
Fortunately, we need not guess at the real-world effects of adopting a more dynamic and development-focused posture in social safety net programs. The 1996 welfare reforms significantly changed the fabric of the social safety net, changing the open-ended cash benefit model of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to the more limited Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The changes gave states much more flexibility in the way in which such programs were run, implemented work requirements, and imposed a five-year limit on financial aid. Like any policy, the landmark shift in American welfare did not solve every problem and should not be lauded for every success in the years following its adoption, but it did significantly improve outcomes for program participants. Millions went back to work and those needing welfare assistance had fallen by 65 percent by 2006. Furthermore, after its adoption, child poverty rates continued to fall and are now at all-time lows.
Prioritizing dynamism and development has a successful track record at a more local level as well. From 2007 to 2013 Robert Doar, now president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), was the commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) and he, along with his fellow city employees, were “on a mission to bring the principles of the 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation to New York City.” By almost any metric, the effort was successful. Between 1995 and 2013, the caseload for New York City’s cash welfare system shrank from almost 1.1 million to fewer than 347,000. Meanwhile, work rates significantly increased among single mothers and rates of child poverty also significantly declined.
Learning the lessons from welfare reform and recognizing the benefits of keeping assistance targeted, temporary, local, and development-oriented is a crucial part of adopting an alternative dynamic framework for social policy, but proponents should not stop there.
An ideal place to start implementing more dynamic and development-focused policy is to resist those policies currently under consideration that would further entrench safety-ism into law. If minimum wage rates are to be increased at all, federally imposed increases for the entire country should be rejected in favor of more local ones. States should continue to reform occupational licensing laws, eliminating those that make little sense or adopting less burdensome regulatory alternatives whenever possible. Attempts to micromanage the types of permissible work relationships and eliminate the gig economy by reclassifying independent contractors as employees should also be forcefully challenged.
There are also proactive policy ideas that either tacitly or explicitly embrace the dynamic and development-oriented mindset that deserve broader attention and consideration.
Learning to be independent and how to navigate the world in such a way as to achieve your goals starts at a young age. Sadly, parents seeking to give their kids reasonable amounts of independence live under the threat of being labeled negligent or even unfit parents. But, thanks in large part to the work of Lenore Skenazy and the LetGrow organization, Utah, Texas, and Oklahoma have all adopted “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws that protect parents from such overreach.
The laws make small but important changes to existing state law surrounding what can be considered parental “neglect.” In short, allowing kids to be unsupervised in some situations is not enough to classify the parent(s) as neglectful. As Representative Gene Wu, a Democrat, told the Texas State Assembly, “From now on, kids will be removed only when ‘they’re actually in danger, and not just the possibility of danger.’” More states should consider passing similar laws that protect parents wanting to give their kids the independence necessary to grow into capable and successful adults.
Another way to adapt social policy towards a more dynamic and development-oriented framework is to maximize flexibility in where and how people can work or start new businesses. With more people spending time at home during the height of the pandemic, working from home in some form or another has become more popular than ever, but outdated zoning laws often prohibit would-be entrepreneurs from starting and running businesses out of their homes. Again, in an effort to protect residents from noise and traffic congestion, many cities passed strict zoning laws prohibiting commercial activity in residential areas.
But the nature of modern commerce has changed immensely since those laws were passed, and now about half of small businesses in the United States are based out of a home. From Etsy-enabled crafting entrepreneurs to small cottage food operations, to just plain freelance work, more people are working or starting businesses from home without disrupting the neighborhood. In the absence of a concrete harm or nuisance, both of which have legal remedies already on the books, local laws should permit such home-based entrepreneurial activity. So far, eighteen states have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from making at least some home-based businesses illegal, but much more should be done to protect home-based entrepreneurs.
Finally, rather than simply increasing funding for mediocre social assistance programs or sending out more unconditional payments from the federal government, policymakers should instead seek to redesign the many existing programs toward the goal of securing a job or learning a useful skill. No matter how much federal payments grow or how well-funded social assistance programs become, those solutions simply cannot provide the level of opportunity for economic advancement that gaining real-world experience, building social and professional networks, and fully participating in the economy can.
State lawmakers should emulate the progress that Utah has made in revamping and consolidating its workforce services programs. After a 1992 legislative audit found that Utah residents in need had trouble accessing available assistance that was then delivered through six state agencies administering twenty-three workforce programs, a decades-long transition was undertaken to consolidate the programs and allow residents to access them through “one door.” Mason M. Bishop, one of the designers of Utah’s integrated Department of Workforce Services, has written about the transition, its goals, and the results at length:
OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, UTAH HAS MERGED MEDICAID ELIGIBILITY SERVICES, HOUSING ASSISTANCE, REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT, AND VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION SERVICES FOR INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES, WITH EACH CHANGE PROVING TO ENHANCE SERVICES TO PEOPLE WHO FREQUENTLY NEEDED MULTIPLE SERVICES TO HELP MOVE TOWARD SELF-SUFFICIENCY.
By consolidating and integrating a variety of services and programs, any Utah resident in need can rest assured that they need only go to one single location to take advantage of available assistance on their way to back on their feet. Integrating these systems in the way Utah has also allows for at least two more significant benefits: First, is the “One-Worker, One-Plan Approach and Data Systems.” Since the services are in one place, workers and job seekers can work with state employees to develop a single plan that includes both public assistance services and job training or employment opportunities all at once, rather than working with different departments for different needs as is common elsewhere. Second, integrating these programs also allows for fiscal integration of state and federal money allocated for these purposes. That in turn makes allocating those scarce resources more streamlined and efficient.
Shifting from a framework that prioritizes safety and security to one that emphasizes dynamism and development is not something that can be done overnight, but making the change is crucial to the goal of breaking down every barrier to flourishing—not just the obvious ones. Mike Rowe’s observation about safety on the job site is just as applicable here: “Everyday, workers fall through the cracks of a one-size-fits-all safety policy. Complacency is the real enemy, and I’m pretty sure the way to eliminate it will not involve more rules and more soothing assurances that an individual’s safety is someone else’s priority.”
No system of security or protection can truly achieve those goals for everyone, no matter how well-intentioned or designed. Being out of poverty is not the same thing as developing to a point where potential can be fulfilled. Our focus should be on creating an environment for the development of independent and capable individuals—able to weather whatever challenges may come their way while pursuing their own unique goals.