PRESIDENT REAGAN'S aides say that he is concerned about the public belief that his programs are unfair. They are mounting a public relations effort to counter this perception.What is interesting about this is that the president seems genuinely perplexed as to why people view his policies as less than generous.
We have said it before: Mr. Reagan is not personally a cruel or heartless man. But that is not the issue. The issue concerns his policies, many of which fail the fairness test.
Take, for example, the package of tax and budget cuts that Mr. Reagan pushed through Congress last year. People at the very top of the income distribution have gained billions in tax reductions and suffered little from benefit cuts. Moreover, their slice of the pie will increase over the next few years as further reductions in business, individual and inheritance taxes are phased in. People at the bottom of the income distribution, by contrast, have been the big losers from cuts in government benefits, jobs and services, and their losses would grow under the administration's budget proposals for next year.
The details of these proposals make it especially hard to accept the administration's protestations of concern. On the welfare front, for example, the administration's plans call for reducing aid to some of the poorest people in the country. More than 5 million people -- mostly children or the aged and disabled -- would be affected. The budget would also take another $2.6 billion from job and training programs at a time when minority and youth unemployment are at record levels. Sharp additional cuts are also planned for child nutrition programs that serve, almost exclusively, the very poor -- this despite the fact that these programs have dramatically reduced malnutrition among the young.
While the savings from these cuts are a mere drop in the federal deficit bucket, the president believes that they are a necessary part of his strategy to reinvigorate the economy. One can argue about the theoretical efficiency of transferring income from the bottom of the income distribution to the top, but there is nothing about the present state of economic affairs that would lead the public to conclude that the gains outweigh the pains.
It is true, as the president and his aides will stress, that some social programs are still growing. What is not pointed out is that the only programs that are outpacing or even keeping up with inflation are social insurance and medical programs -- such as Social Security, unemployment insurance and Medicare. These programs are not growing because the administration wants to be generous. They are expanding because the number of people who are entitled to or in need of these benefits is increasing. One reason for that growth is the current sorry state of the economy -- an item that should be at the very top of the president's list of concerns.