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The military in the United States provides its personnel with two ways to access decent, quality housing:  1) rent free housing on most bases; and, 2) a housing allowance paid to those who do not live in base housing. (Photo: Getty/SDI Productions)

American Social Democracy Is Possible

The American government and its institutions do know how to use public revenue to promote the development, health, and well-being of all Americans. They do it for the members of the military. They simply choose not to do it for the rest of us.

Thomas Meisenhelder

Many Americans have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to live in a social democratic society. Some think that the nations of Northern Europe are good enough places, but their systems could never work in the United States. This, I think, is a common fallacy that can be corrected by looking at life on an American military base (full disclosure: my father was a career Air Force officer and I grew up on military bases around the world).

Social democracies are societies where the government actively promotes social and economic justice within a capitalist mixed economy.

Social democracies are societies where the government actively promotes social and economic justice within a capitalist mixed economy. They do so, by and large, through policies that use tax revenues to provide universal access to things like child care, higher education, health care, and good pensions for the retired and elderly.

The European social democracies are widely praised because they provide health care to all through national insurance systems. Health care is subsidized or free for all. This system of so-called "socialized medicine" is available in the United States, but only for military families. U.S. military members and their families are provided with free medical coverage, drugs, and dental care through the U S military healthcare system (TRICARE). The system provides coverage for all kinds of health issues from general care to specialized clinical care.

The social democracies also are praised for their child care systems. Usually, parents in these countries are able to send their children to daycare around one year of age. Generous parental leave systems of up to a year allow at least one parent to stay home with the child until then. The child care organizations are both private and government operated and are subsidized so that fees are kept low and services are accessible to all. In a similar fashion, most sizeable military bases have family daycare centers. The cost of these centers depends on the family's income and, if the on-base center is full families receive subsidies to help with the cost of off-base centers. The U.S. military also provides six weeks (soon increasing to 12 weeks) of nonchargeable parental leave to the primary caretaker of a biological or adopted child (secondary caretakers get 21 days of parental leave).   

It is well know that social democracies adopt policies aimed at reducing poverty and its harms. They use tax revenues to fund programs that alleviate poverty and its discontents, such as substantial unemployment benefits, job gaining assistance, affordable public housing, and (as already mentioned) universal access to healthcare. Our military does the same. The U.S. armed forces provide very low income members serving overseas with supplemental assistance in the form of a cash allowance. In addition, service members who do not use the free meals provided in chow halls receive a nontaxable food allowance (Basic Allowance for Subsistence) of $200-$300 a month. 

Social democracies provide their citizens with access to affordable housing. Most provide housing allowances or subsidized rental housing to low income residents. So does the U.S. military. The military in the United States provides its personnel with two ways to access decent, quality housing:  1) rent free housing on most bases; and, 2) a housing allowance paid to those who do not live in base housing. It is interesting to note that living on base is essentially living in a large gated community with secure neighborhoods, recreational facilities like parks, pools, and gyms, good public transportation, and close-by subsidized shopping and services. 

In addition, of course, active duty and retired military personnel receive assistance in home buying through the Veteran's Administration home loan program which features no down payment and low interest rates. 

Social democracies also provide their members with wide access to education at all levels. Free quality public education in these societies includes free or affordable higher education, both academic and vocational. Here, once again, the American military seems to recognize the value of social democratic ideals. Military personnel have access to eduction through programs such as the GI Bill, tuition assistance for those on active duty and their dependents, ROTC and other scholarship programs, student loan repayment and cancellation programs, and on-base educational counseling centers.

Social democracies are widely praised for how they treat their elderly populations. These governments enact policies and statutes that promote the quality of life for the elderly, such as good retirement pensions with health care, adequate housing, access to public transportation, healthy natural environments, opportunities for social participation, and the promotion of a culture of respect for older persons. Military retirees also enjoy excellent pensions (with regular cost of living adjustments) and good access to health care (often including their dependents). Military retirees also receive access to a tax-deferred retirement accounts, transition assistance, a final paid move, education benefits (the "G I Bill"), and housing assistance (VA loans).  In addition, they and their dependents are able to continue using many on-base services such as medical clinics and hospitals, recreational opportunities, pharmacies, grocery stores, and libraries. 

Certainly, the U.S. military is not a social democratic organization, but it does provide its members with many beneficial programs that resemble the practices of the social democracies of the world. More so than anywhere else in American society.

The point of this comparison is simply this: the American government and its institutions do know how to use public revenue to promote the development, health, and well-being of all Americans. They do it for the members of the military. They simply choose not to do it for the rest of us. 

So, the next time someone tells you that they are afraid the United States is going to be ruined by the adoption of "socialist" policies like they have in Europe. Ask them if they think the U S military is a socialist institution. Ask them in they think it would be better if our soldiers, sailors, and airmen did not have access to taxpayer provided affordable housing, subsidized food, tuition assistance, and universal health care? If not, then why is it better for the rest of us to be without these resources and opportunities?


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Thomas Meisenhelder

Thomas Meisenhelder

Thomas Meisenhelder is a retired Professor of Sociology from California State University, San Bernardino. He lives in Huntington Beach, CA.

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