Now Republicans seem poised to enact much of that very agenda. With corporate tax cuts nearly out the door—pending some ironing out in conference between the House and Senate—Republicans are turning their attention to the welfare system, arguing that neither the deficit nor the economy can afford current programs that help the sick or poor. In a recent radio interview, Ryan told radio host Ross Kaminsky that Republicans will try to reduce spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and anti-poverty programs in 2018, despite the absence of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” he said. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post report that the GOP might start by targeting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP, or food stamps), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), Social Security Disability Insurance, or Medicaid.
There are two major Republican arguments against anti-poverty spending and social insurance—an affordability argument and an efficiency argument. One Republican claim against these programs, as Senator Hatch and Ryan have previewed, will be that there is not enough revenue to support them. It’s a strange claim that’s even more strangely timed. Whether or not the U.S. is approaching a debt crisis in the next decade—I honestly don’t know—it seems bizarre to raise this alarm after passing a bill that greatly increases the debt. It’s like a husband who, after years of obsessing about the family’s finances, buys a Lamborghini on a lark, drives home, and rants to his wife about the mortgage.
A second angle of attack against anti-poverty spending will claim that welfare reform will alleviate poverty and grow the economy by forcing low-income layabouts back to work. “Sometimes we need to force people to go to work,” Representative Rod Blum, an Iowa Republican, said. “There will be no excuses for anyone who can work to sit at home and not work,” Representative Clay Higgins, from Louisiana, concurred. President Donald Trump, who once promised “I am going to take care of everybody,” has embraced and embellished the argument that welfare makes people lazy and rich. “The person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off,” he said at a speech last week in Missouri. (Ironically, the biggest winners of the GOP tax bill would be the lazy rich, since rich heirs and passive business owners would see their effective tax rates plummet.)
Economic research does not quite square with the Republican assessments. The welfare queen is a pernicious American myth. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has published numerous reports showing that SNAP does little to discourage work among its recipients. Other research has shown that food stamps lift millions of non-seniors out of poverty, more than any program other than the Earned Income Tax Credit. To cut SNAP as a sequel to slashing the corporate income tax would be a rather explicit reverse–Robin Hood, fattening the after-tax income of the rich as a prelude to further impoverishing the poor.