Hurricane Harvey reveals the cost of neglecting our community foundation. (More)

“A Foundation, not a Net”

Jacobin’s Matt Bruenig offers a fascinating essay on why we should reframe the “safety net” as a “foundation”:

Despite its popularity, the safety net metaphor has always struck me as confused at best and as indicative of bad welfare politics at worst. The message of the safety net is that we all need protection when we fall, which of course is true. But the role of a good welfare state is not just to protect against fluke catastrophes, and most welfare benefits are not even used for that purpose.

Old-age pensions, paid family leave, child care benefits, public health insurance, and education are not items provided to people in the depths of a life collapse. They are, in their ideal form, universal services for life events that basically everyone goes through. People intentionally have children, intentionally go to school, and intentionally live into retirement. These are positive experiences in themselves, and only become negative because of a bad welfare system.

Some benefits do genuinely track occurrences most would regard as inherently unfortunate, such as becoming disabled or becoming unemployed. But they are the exception, not the rule.

The deeper problem, Bruenig argues, is that a “safety net” frame implies failure, that those who need it must have fallen off the high wire of life.

But this is a terrible story to tell about why welfare states are needed. It identifies the problem as being caused by bumps in the road, which conservatives often re-describe as personal failings, when the much better story of the welfare state locates the problem in the inherent defects of a capitalist economic order.

Under laissez-faire capitalism, income is only distributed to the factors of production, i.e. labor and capital. If you don’t own a whole bunch of capital or have the capacity and opportunity to work, capitalism has no use for you and would, left alone, starve you to death. The welfare state exists not because some people just randomly fall on hard times, but rather because capitalism has no way of getting huge numbers of people (around half of the population is not working at any given time) the income and services that they need.

A better metaphor, both in terms of accuracy and rhetoric, would be the foundation. The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives. It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe. The precise mix of welfare benefits individuals get will of course vary depending on what stage of life they are in, but the welfare state as a whole is there for them at all times, giving them the stability to do everything else they want to do with their lives.

I like the frame of a foundation, and I’d carry it further. Think of infrastructure as having two forms. There’s ‘hard’ infrastructure: roads, bridges, rails, public transportation, water and sewer, health and sanitation, power and communication grids, etc. Then there’s ‘soft’ infrastructure: quality education, flexible yet farsighted planning, effective regulation, law enforcement – including policies to ensure trustworthy government – and so on.

Infrastructure in both its ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms, along with a sensible welfare state, comprise a community’s foundation. And the quality of that foundation is a big driver in whether a community prospers or withers. If that foundation is solid, the community will attract and keep residents who in turn draw business and investment. If that foundation crumbles, residents and then entrepreneurs and investors will look elsewhere.

“More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

That concept of a foundation includes whether and how a community plans for natural disasters like flooding:

“More people die here [in Houston] than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”


Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes[.]

That story was co-published by the Texas Tribune and Pro Publica … eight months ago. It’s worth reading in full, if only for the jaw-dropping hubris of Harris County Flood Control leaders, who stubbornly insist that scientists “have an agenda” and that only they themselves are real “experts.”

“At any given time the flood control has been adequate, but for the city T-5 years ago, not now”

Houston resident Matt Corbett offers an excellent summary of how the city has planned to cope with floods in a series of tweets that starts here:

Again, his ‘floodsplainer’ is worth reading in full, but here are the key points:

This, he explains, is why city officials decided against evacuation. If your flood plan is to let streets become temporary rivers, the last thing you want is 6.5 million people stuck in traffic on those streets-becoming-rivers. So there’s a semblance of a plan …

… but the flood control plan isn’t integrated in a comprehensive community planning process. To borrow Bruenig’s metaphors, Houston’s city leaders see flood planning as a “safety net,” not part of the city’s “foundation.” Worse, in refusing to even consider the science of climate change, they keep insisting these major floods are “500-year events” … never mind that this is the fourth “500-year” flood in 15 years.

“In coastal areas, a flood map is out of date on the day it’s published”

That problem isn’t limited to Houston, as Vox’s Ella Nilson explains in an analysis of the National Flood Insurance Program:

The problem is, many of the maps used to calculate rates are still outdated, making it very difficult for the NFIP to make it back to financial solvency.

“Congress never set the program up to factor in the possibility of such events into the longterm financial plan of the NFIP,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council who specializes in water and flooding. “They have looked at these big storms and really only nibbled the edges of what it means longterm for the flood insurance program.”

There has been reform to the program, reflected in higher rates people are paying. Sometimes, that can be really difficult for homeowners to swallow. For instance, after the federal government redrew the flood maps in Massachusetts in 2013, one woman was hit with a $68,000 insurance bill.

As Moore points out, we usually have this discussion when a major hurricane hits, but there are plenty of other smaller floods that have just as much of an impact. And it’s only going to get worse as climate change causes sea levels to rise and warmer water contributes to stronger storms.

“In coastal areas, a flood map is out of date on the day it’s published,” Moore said. “What we think is the 100 year flood really isn’t any more.”

The NFIP is another part of that societal foundation, and many Republicans dismiss it as a “welfare” program … until their states need it. But Nilson explains that relying on flood insurance misses another key foundation element:

The irony of the situation is that the federal government pours billions into repairs for houses that are probably going to flood again, said Moore and Larson.

The United States spends about $300 billion responding to natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey. In contrast, we only spend about $600 million on mitigation – improving buildings so they won’t flood when the next storm comes. This is despite the fact that mitigation has a 4-1 payback, Larson said. The problem is that people often don’t want to spend money up front to protect their house or business, and then get caught up in a cycle of rebuilding.

Earlier this year, Moore and the National Resources Defense Council published a report showing a small percentage of properties that flood repeatedly account for a disproportionate amount of federal insurance payouts.

Between 1978 and 2005, the NFIP paid out $5.5 billion to 30,000 properties classified as “severe repetitive loss properties,” or properties that have flooded an average of five times. These properties account for just 0.6 of the total properties covered by flood insurance, but they account for 9.6 percent of paid claims.

Flood insurance is akin to patching walls and floors as a building shifts and settles. Mitigation and flood control planning are pouring a better foundation, so the building won’t shift and settle as much …

… and that’s why Bruenig’s frame is so powerful. Conservatives’ fetishistic devotion to free markets ignores the community foundation that lets those markets work. Individual economic actors have no market incentive to lay and maintain most of those essential foundation elements. Houston is a case study in what happens when civic leaders expect Free Markets!™ to magically prepare a city for nature’s wrath.


Photo Credit: Katie Hayes Luke (NPR)


Good day and good nuts