The contours of President Bush’s “ownership society” are beginning to come into focus as we approach his second inauguration on Jan. 20. Seeking to imprint his era with as memorable a label as the New Deal or the Great Society, President Bush uses ownership as the framework for understanding his beliefs about and intentions for transforming American social policy.

In earlier, pre-election references to the ownership society by the White House, the primary image conjured up was of home ownership, to be increased by a list of government programs (home-ownership tax credit, down-payment assistance, home-ownership Section 8 vouchers). Today, ownership is largely discussed as the means to solving the “crisis” in Social Security, by allowing younger workers to divert portions of their contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund into private accounts invested at the direction of the individual.

Despite HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson’s New Year’s Resolution urging everyone to become a homeowner in 2005, we have not heard much about the second Bush Administration’s plans to help low-income people become homeowners. We have heard a great deal about plans to transform Social Security.

Listen carefully to the president’s inaugural address and, more importantly, to his State of the Union speech, to better understand what the “ownership society” really means. Home ownership is highly idealized in the United States, so linking home ownership to partial privatization of Social Security in the public’s mind is a clever strategy. Especially clever is the proposal to allow the funds in these personal accounts to be a legacy to bequeath to one’s heirs, a powerful value associated with home ownership.

As the most successful triumph of American liberalism, Social Security is an affront to the political right. The fundamental premise of Social Security, that we can and should collectively assure a social minimum for retired and disabled people, conflicts with the ideology of personal responsibility and self reliance and the belief that worthy people are rewarded with the accumulation of wealth. The ownership society may be transforming, but it will not be progress.

Sheila Crowley is president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which focuses on increasing public and government awareness of low-income housing issues.


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