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Compassionate Conservatism? 4 Popular Safety-Net Programs Tea Party Republicans Have Turned Against in the Age of Obama

If Republicans can't support healthier school meals for kids, what can they support?
 
 
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Imagine how much harder the last three years would have been without the safeguards erected over the past 80 years, in many cases with bipartisan support. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance are the broadest, but there are also the programs specifically targeted toward low-income Americans: the earned income tax credit, community health centers, school lunch programs, and food stamps, to name a few. 

These policies have two things in common. They’ve historically enjoyed high levels of support, not just from the Democratic Party, but from Republicans as well. And today’s GOP plans to dismantle or seriously weaken all of them, setting back almost a century of progress.   

This isn’t a sudden lurch to the right, but the continuation of a  process that has been in motion for decades. After Democratic president Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights laws of the 1960s, conservative southern whites began breaking towards the Republicans. With these energetically reactionary voters added to their base, Republican elites could rely on more consistently hardline support for a platform consisting largely of tax breaks for the wealthy and attacking social programs. 

“We have a new breed of Republican that is much more radical,” says Peter Edleman, expert on social insurance programs and an assistant secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration. “Every time the Republicans come to power, they are more conservative. Reagan was very negative about a whole series of programs that helped low-income people, Gingrich was worse than Reagan and now the Tea Party is the worst we’ve seen.” 

Below you will find four examples of social programs that used to be supported by Republicans (at least some of them), but have suffered sustained attack over the last thee years.  

School Lunch Programs 

Ensuring that American students can attend school with full bellies seems like the most uncontroversial public policy of all time. Besides the obvious common decency argument,  multiple studies show that children learn better when they aren’t hungry.   

Free school lunch programs were originally instituted following World War II and the basics of the program are reauthorized every five years. The last time it was up for reauthorization, as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, it passed both houses of Congress unanimously. (Only Ron Paul voted against the iteration before that.)  

Not so last year, when the Child Nutrition Bill met the Tea Party. Sure, the bill was a little larger this time and it included some additional guidelines to encourage a more nutritious diet. “The bills are very, very similar,” says Joel Berg, author of  All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? and who served eight years at the Clinton administration’s US Department of Agriculture (which oversees many of the government’s anti-hunger programs).  

But House Republicans used these changes as an excuse to vote against the bill en masse. Despite the Obama administration’s desperate concessions to get more Republicans on board, 157 of the 170 member House Republican caucus  voted against the bill. And they’ve continued their  crusade against healthy school meals since gaining a majority in the House.  

 “The last two times it passed Congress with virtually no controversy,” says Berg. “That’s a huge change. Lots of people have gone after food stamps. But going after school meals, I don’t know if the Grinch would do that. But House Republicans do. If they can’t be for healthier school meals for kids what can they be for?” 

Food Stamps  

As Berg points out, food stamps—now officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—have encountered greater conservative opposition than school lunch programs. But the program has also obtained significant levels of Republican support throughout its history. Which makes sense: food stamps are certainly a more conservative alternative to, say, cash assistance programs, which have long been derided by the GOP.