The peril to entitlements has been overstated by the likes of Paul Ryan, but progressives can no longer ignore the need for smart reform. Here's how to do it.
Something wonderful happened in the United States during the middle third of the 20th century. After decades of policies that smacked of Social Darwinism, our country created a strong, if incomplete, social-insurance safety net. The actions our government took expressed a solemn promise to vulnerable Americans. Social Security and Medicare assured the elderly and disabled basic cash income and health care roughly similar to that enjoyed by the rest of the population. They lifted the elderly and disabled from a status of privation to near equality with the nonelderly in both money income and access to health care. Various other federal programs provided food, housing, and educational support, or encouraged their provision by state and local governments. By official measures, poverty among the elderly fell below that of other age groups thanks to Social Security, and health coverage improved markedly for the nonelderly poor because of Medicaid.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, these advances are under attack and that solemn promise is in jeopardy. To be sure, these programs enjoy enormous popularity. At the same time, however, a solid minority has never accepted the idea that taxes should be used to pay for pensions and health insurance. As long as economic growth generated enough revenue to pay for these programs and the rest of government's commitments, opponents of social insurance and other elements of the safety net gained little political traction. Three deficit-reduction plans enacted during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, along with sustained economic growth, produced budget surpluses in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
- Bill Moyers & Arnold Hiatt: An Open Letter to Patriotic Philanthropists
- Russ Feingold: Building a Permanent Majority for Reform
- Barney Frank: Why Obama Can--and Must--Cut Defense Spending
But then everything changed, and the national debt ballooned. The recessions of 2001 and 2007-2009 led to higher unemployment and lower revenues. Imprudent tax cuts slashed revenues still more. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the tragedy of 9/11 led to huge increases in military spending. As a result, large and seemingly limitless deficits emerged, and budgetary angst has become epidemic.