In Defense Of Success

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The problem with liberals, conservatives often say, is that they are too committed to old programs. This is an odd criticism coming from conservatives who regularly hail the low-tax, small-government policies of Calvin Coolidge as a model for good government. If wanting to bring back the 1920s isn't backward-looking, what is?

In fact, liberals suffer from a different problem: They rarely talk about what their programs have actually achieved. In the face of the attack on government since the 1970s, liberals have often fallen mute -- or pretended to be just as anti-government as their conservative rivals.

Alternatively, some on the left worry that saying certain things are working is a form of selling out because it distracts attention from all that is wrong. Ben Wattenberg and the late Richard Scammon cleverly parodied this approach more than three decades ago, when they wrote that liberals often seemed to declare: "Our programs have failed. Let us continue."

It is thus important news that today, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the estimable liberal organization, will release a series of studies showing that programs aimed at lifting up Americans with low incomes actually do what they say they do. The reports reflect a growing recognition on the part of progressives that after years of playing defense against conservative claims, it is time to go on offense.

The fact is that every year 27 million Americans are lifted from poverty by our system of public benefits. More than 80 million Americans receive health insurance through a government program -- Medicaid, Medicare or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP. Without these programs, tens of millions would be unable to afford access to medical care. As the center notes, government programs reduce both the extent and the depth of poverty.

Does all this cost a fortune? Not by any fair reckoning. Federal spending on Medicaid and SCHIP represents 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. Federal financing for the rest of the low-income programs consumes just 2.3 percent of GDP. For a sense of comparison, consider that defense spending consumes 4 percent of GDP and interest on the national debt gobbles up 1.5 percent. President Bush's tax cuts -- which go in large part to the wealthiest Americans -- will consume roughly 2 percent of GDP.

And federal spending for the poor does a huge amount of good. Food stamps, the center notes, "help more than 25 million people with low incomes afford an adequate diet." The school lunch and breakfast programs provide free and reduced-price meals to 22 million schoolchildren from low-income families. The supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC helps about 8 million pregnant and postpartum women and their children under 5. One of its effects has been to reduce the incidence of low birth weight among infants. Think of WIC as one of our most important pro-life programs.

Or take the earned-income tax credit, which supplements the incomes of the working poor. Census data show that in 2002 the EITC "lifted 4.9 million people out of poverty, including 2.7 million children." Without the EITC, the center notes, "the poverty rate among children would have been nearly one-third higher."

The report cites conservative economist and Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, who once wrote that the earned-income tax credit "rewards rather than penalizes poor families with working members." Yes, government programs can fight poverty while decreasing dependency.

Without government, our health care mess would be much worse. Just imagine how many more Americans would lack health coverage if 50 million of our fellow citizens -- many of them children -- did not have access to Medicaid.

There is much more in these reports -- available at http://www.cbpp.org/ -- but the point is clear: Without government's exertions, many more Americans would be poor. This, in turn, means that Congress's efforts to pay for the Bush tax cuts by trimming some of these programs, particularly food stamps and Medicaid, are, in a word, unconscionable.

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan's budget director gave conservatives sensible marching orders. "We are interested in curtailing weak claims rather than weak clients," David Stockman declared. "We have to show that we are willing to attack powerful clients with weak claims."

Washington's silent scandal is that the weak claims of the best-off and the best-connected are getting far more deference than the needs of weak clients. When we know the good that federal spending for the poor can do, this silent scandal might begin to command a share of our attention.

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