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April 09, 2012 12:33 PM A Safety Net, Not a Hammock

By Harold Pollack

Allow me a moment to express my disgust with some comments made by Rep. Paul Ryan.

He’s out selling a House Republican budget whose stated particulars include $4.6 trillion in tax cuts weighted strongly to the affluent alongside punishing cuts to social programs and the denial of health insurance coverage to tens of millions of people covered under health reform.

The Congressional Budget Office cannot score Rep. Ryan’s proposals without specific details. However, Ryan’s staff provided CBO with general percentages to examine the long-term implications. Among other things, spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program \would decline “from 2 percent of GDP in 2011 to 1¼ percent in 2030 and 1 percent in 2050.” Meanwhile, other mandatory spending, and all discretionary spending, would decline “from 12½ percent of GDP in 2011 to 5¾ percent in 2030 and 3¾ percent in 2050.” In my opinion, President Obama fairly described Ryan’s plan when he called it “thinly-veiled social Darwinism.” Ryan’s proposals have only one redeeming feature: their political impracticality. Like Jon Cohn, I find this appalling.

I’m even more appalled by a story I found only today. Ryan and other Republicans are apparently wrapping their proposals within the flag of the 1996 welfare reform. That in itself isn’t surprising. You don’t need Frank Luntz focus group to find out that welfare reform is popular, and that welfare recipients are not. Framing budget cuts as cutting welfare therefore has obvious appeal. Whether welfare reform actually produced effective or more humane public policy is not particularly relevant to this political calculation.

Anyway, Ryan has now called his proposed budget “welfare reform round two.” Arthur Delaney and Michael McAuliff quote him thusly in the Huffington Post:

“Let’s take those principles of welfare reform that were extremely successful in getting people out of lives of dependency and back on their feet,” Ryan said. His plan would turn the funding for federal programs like food stamps and housing assistance into block grants… States would then set work requirements and time limits for the benefits.
“This is a path that we believe reignites and renews the American idea,” Ryan said. “It reclaims the opportunity society with a safety net, which we do believe must exist for people who cannot help themselves, for people who are down on their luck, so they can get back on their feet.”
“But we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

I doubt Rep. Ryan was talking about my brother-in-law Vincent, who requires Medicaid and food stamps because he is permanently disabled. I suspect that most conservatives would be embarrassed to learn the true impact on the intellectually disabled of conservative state policies.

Ryan is speaking about many of the direct care workers who assist disabled persons such as Vincent. We trust these women and men to care for our loved ones. They clean soiled linens. They calm agitated people suffering from autism spectrum disorders. Their professional peers do similarly worthy work as nurse’s aides, and child care workers. They earn very low wages, nationally averaging just above $11/hr. Many provide health care while they, themselves, go uninsured.

Like their counterparts who scrub floors, change diapers, or operate cash registers at McDonald’s, these are the lucky duckies whose kids rely upon Medicaid or CHIP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other elements of our safety-net. Below them on the economic ladder are low-income single moms trying to raise their kids on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), traditional cash welfare. Many of these women can’t find a job in the midst of an economic crisis. Still others are quite poor, yet for one reason or another are ineligible for TANF aid.

Few people are resting on “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Welfare rolls are at record lows. In some states, maximum TANF cash benefit for a family of three are below $200. That’s well below the $350 that Rep. Ryan apparently paid for a single bottle of wine at a swank business dinner.

I live and work in the Chicago southland, near hundreds of thousands of poor people who would be deeply hurt by policies Congressman Ryan espouses. Some are jobless. Others work hard every day in crummy jobs. Others are students in elementary school. They don’t need lectures from a conspicuously pampered congressman regarding their “will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

I don’t know who originated this hammock metaphor. Republicans such as William Weld have deployed it before. Whoever made it up, it’s pretty disgraceful.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community ]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
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Comments

  • Craigie on April 10, 2012 7:52 AM:

    You forgot about another "classic" metaphor of that era, used occasionally by Senator Phil Gramm in his 1996 Presidential campaign. It was in the context of growing case loads of social security disability (SSI and SSDI) mentally ill: "There are more and more people in the wagon and fewer people pulling the wagon. A lot of the people in the wagon need to get out and pull." He believed a lot of them were malingerers who should go to work and start paying taxes.

    My comment was -- how about putting your money where your mouth is? Conservative Senators should be hiring recovering mentally ill professionals for their staffs instead of just hiring women and men who look like models.

  • Tramey on April 10, 2012 9:38 AM:

    When they talk about the lucky-duckies and cutting Medicaid, I wonder if people are thinking of folks like my 93-year-old mother, who has spent her and my late father's entire life's earnings on nursing home care and now relies on Medicaid. Which party is throwing Grandma under the bus?