Mitt Romney's new ad campaign, attacking President Obama over welfare, is no isolated event. In state capitals, think tanks, and Congress, American conservatives are assailing government programs for the poor with renewed fervor as the nation creeps out from recession.
The Right has ample targets. The federal safety net has swollen to unprecedented scope and size in recent years as the economic crisis, globalization, an aging population, soaring health care costs, and more-liberal eligibility standards have led tens of millions of the working poor to turn to the government for support.
Medicaid, food stamps, disability, and supplemental-income programs have morphed from emergency remedies to common crutches of working-class life. The "fundamentally destructive" and "narcotic" dependency on the social-welfare system that President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned of in his 1935 State of the Union speech is increasingly a reluctant necessity.
The cost to the taxpayers: $927 billion in state and federal funds last year.
Consider a few examples:
- State and federal costs for Medicaid, the health care program for poorer Americans, have jumped from $159 billion in 1995 to $401 billion in 2010, and are expected to double again by 2019 to $811 billion, according to the Health and Human Services Department.
- The number of Americans who participate in the federal food-stamp program has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and costs have quadrupled, in part because of more-lenient enrollment standards, the General Accounting Office has found. By 2020, one in 10 U.S. residents will receive food-stamp benefits, the Congressional Budget Office predicts, at a cost of $73 billion a year.
- The more-liberal eligibility standards in Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides support to non-elderly Americans who are deemed too disabled to work, have helped spur a "rapid expansion" in that program until the share of working-age Americans claiming the benefit is approaching 5 percent. It has become something of a shadow unemployment-insurance fund. According to GAO, "the projected gap between its spending and dedicated revenues in the future raises questions about the financial sustainability of the program."
- The Supplemental Security Income program, a social-welfare fund once reserved for blind and physically disabled individuals, has grown rapidly to some 8 million individuals receiving payments, in large part due to an influx of children with relatively common behavioral disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. A 2010 investigation by The Boston Globe found that "this little-scrutinized $10 billion federal disability program has gone seriously astray, becoming an alternative welfare system with troubling built-in incentives that risk harm to children."
But the Romney ad campaign focuses, deceptively, on the core welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which has remained relatively stable in the years since the welfare-reform act of 1996. It is the dozens of satellite programs, providing food, housing, medical care, and cash benefits, that have pushed means-tested social-welfare spending for the poorer among us — not including Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, or worker's compensation — toward the trillion-dollar mark.
"Means-tested spending comprises a vast, hidden welfare state," said Robert Rector, the senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in congressional testimony this summer. "The public is almost totally unaware of the size and scope of government spending on the poor ... each of the 79 programs is debated in isolation as if it were the only program."
Progressives don't argue with the figures. "If one simply looks at total means-tested programs, costs appear to remain high in the years to come and will likely continue climbing over time as a percent of [gross domestic product]," said Robert Greenstein and Richard Kogan, in a study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The costs of these programs have risen significantly in the last few years."
But these kinds of increases are inevitable, the CBPP scholars argue, as our aging population, facing rising health care costs, emerges from the Great Recession. As the economy recovers, the cost of food stamps and other antipoverty programs will decline over time to the historic average, or below, CBO projects. Health care costs — which account for about half of all social-welfare spending — are the great exception.
"The growth of health care costs and the aging of the population explain all of the long-term growth of expenditures as percent of GDP," the analysts write. "Medicaid isn't the cause of this system-wide cost growth." Indeed, "over the past decade, per-beneficiary costs have been rising more slowly in Medicaid than under private insurance," they note.
Nevertheless, the conservative pushback is strong:
- The House Republican budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would transform Medicaid into a block grant and cut Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program spending almost in half, as a share of GDP, in the next 20 years. "Cutbacks might involve reduced eligibility "¦ coverage of fewer services, lower payments to providers or increased cost-sharing by beneficiaries — all of which would reduce access to care," CBO concluded.
- House conservatives have demanded changes in eligibility and $16 billion in cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food-stamp, budget over the coming decade, a primary reason the farm bill remains stalled in the House.
- High-profile Republican governors, like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida, and Rick Perry of Texas, are leading a national movement against the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that would increase Medicaid payments to the states.
- The House and Senate Republican tax bills debated in recent weeks kept the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans intact but slashed the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit and a higher-education tax credit, which had been boosted for some 25 million working-class families in the 2009 economic-stimulus act. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., called the credits "spending items "¦ that failed."
Romney's antiwelfare ad is just one slice of an ongoing conservative media campaign to characterize the beneficiaries of social-welfare benefits as relatively comfortable — if not fat and lazy — consumers of America's material gifts. "Poor Americans are healthier than the rich of previous generations," wrote Sen.Rand Paul, R-Ky., in the National Review last fall. "The average poor household has a car, air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and an Xbox."
"To the extent that poverty impacts health, much of it can be attributed to behavioral factors," Paul said. "Obesity rates are significantly higher among the poor than the general population."
"When is it going to end? Is the upper 49 percent going to have to continue to carry everything in this country?" exclaimed Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, during debate on the Senate tax bill this summer.
"Almost half of Americans pay no federal income tax at all," griped Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, in the House debate. "What we need are more taxpayers, not more taxes" on the wealthy.
In the House and Senate debates, the Democrats noted how the conservative attack on the social-welfare programs is being waged in conjunction with an embrace of greater tax cuts for the very wealthy, in a nation where income inequality is a rising issue.
Nor are Republicans as critical, in general, of the Pentagon budget — which itself has more than doubled in the last 10 years and is far bigger now than at any time during the Cold War. If reducing debt and deficits is a vital national goal, the Democrats asked, shouldn't all Americans contribute fairly?
"My God, can we do any more to help the wealthy in America than what our Republican friends have done?" asked Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
At this point, the Republicans continue to portray themselves as compassionate conservatives, making their arguments in the rhetoric of economic opportunity. As the American economy struggles to recovery from recession, they should be aware of the danger of becoming too strident and of attacking poor people instead of wasteful programs. Going overboard makes them look unfair, and fairness is an American tradition — even in today's politics.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.