The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where’s the GOP’s anti-poverty agenda?

Placeholder while article actions load

Since it’s been exactly a year since the Democrats handily won the 2012 election, I glanced over the Republicans’ post-election “autopsy,” to check on the status of GOP reforms. The result: bupkis. As many have already noted, the party has failed utterly to implement the autopsy’s recommendation to improve its outreach to women and Latinos.

However, there’s another area where Republicans have also ignored the RNC autopsy that gets far less attention: Poverty issues.

The autopsy advises that the GOP needs to address the image that the party doesn’t care about the poor: “To people who are flat on their back, unemployed or disabled and in need of help, they do not care if the help comes from the private sector or the government — they just want help.” The safety net should be “a trampoline, not a trap,” it says.

But a year on it’s clear this advice has been completely ignored, and the GOP continues to expend every effort to shred the safety net, not change its elasticity. Five years of near-depression conditions have only hardened the GOP line against any and all poverty assistance, turning what might be a mild reform in times of full employment into pointless cruelty against those least able to bear it.

Here’s Ned Resnikoff on GOP-demanded cuts to food stamps:

The 2009 stimulus bill raised the cap on food stamp benefits and pumped an additional $45.2 billion into the program over the next several years. But as provisions of the law expire, the program is scheduled to receive a $5 billion cut over the next year alone. Those cuts will reduce monthly benefits for every single food stamp recipient in the country; a family of four will receive $36 less per month, on average. Billions more in cuts are scheduled to occur in the following two years, despite the fact that food insecurity in America has not even begun to return to pre-recession levels…
When people don’t have the resources to feed themselves, and government welfare programs aren’t giving them the help they need, food banks are often the safety net of last resort. However, these non-profit charities are also dependent on government subsidies, and many of them are seeing their budgets shrink even as demand for their services reaches unprecedented levels.

Here’s Suzy Khimm on what the sequester is doing to coal country in Kentucky:

More than 6,200 eastern Kentucky miners have been laid off since July 2011. There are now fewer coal jobs here than in 1920…sequestration—a series of across-the-board spending cuts that many Tea Party Republicans have come to embrace—and other austerity measures have accelerated the economic free fall. Unemployment benefits to laid-off miners are shrinking; fewer meals are getting delivered to homebound seniors; and there’s less money to help workers retool for new jobs…It’s yet another blow to struggling Appalachian mining towns like Harlan, where the mayor estimates that 15% of the town’s residents have moved out in the past year.

Paul Ryan has been the most consistent Republican voice on these issues. The War on Poverty failed, he has said repeatedly. The logic to this is that anti-poverty programs actually create poverty by luring people into a hammock of dependency on big government programs. It’s not 100 percent implausible — it’s the same logic that motivated Bill Clinton’s welfare reform program, which sort of worked for awhile. But what it misses is the macroeconomy. Sometimes background situations overwhelm individual initiative, especially when it comes to finding work. In depression conditions, where there are vastly more job-seekers than there are jobs, taking away support so people are “forced” to go try to find work amounts to kicking them when they’re down. People are not incentivized out into jobs, they just suffer and go hungry. What’s more, it makes the depression worse through knock-on aggregate demand effects.

Now, the old pre-reform classic welfare did have some problems, mainly with the incentive structure of its benefits. I’d say welfare reform worked okay in the context of a massive economic boom, but with unemployment over 7 percent for the last five years straight, the safety net overall badly needs strengthening these days, not further cuts.

But in the hermetically sealed bubble of the Republican office-holder, the American ideal of everyone being able to succeed if they try hard enough always holds sway. Recently the job-seekers-to-job-openings ratio fell below three to one for the first time in five years, which means it’s down to the absolute worst of the early 2000s recession. But in Republican Land the possibility of there being a situation where it is literally impossible for every person to succeed is ruled out by definition.  The Great Depression was FDR’s fault. Welfare reform just didn’t kick enough people off the rolls. Giving money to poor people only makes them worse off.

As it happens, LBJ’s War on Poverty worked spectacularly well: “from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent.” Paul Ryan says anti-poverty programs should be measured by “how many people we get out of poverty,” but of course he does not grapple with or even acknowledge this evidence. Instead, recession-induced increases in safety net programs only sparks calls for additional “reform,” meaning cuts. Inconvenient statistics are easily ignored or denied.

The austerity mania is cruel enough. But the real giveaway is when it comes to food stamps. SNAP benefits (the food stamp program) are tiny — the current cuts will reduce the average per-meal allotment to $1.40, and Republicans want billions more in cuts. Food stamps used to be fairly uncontroversial; it was thought incentives and moral deserts aside, no one should starve in the richest nation that has ever existed. But in today’s GOP, being insufficiently zealous about cutting food stamps might earn a primary challenge.