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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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Indeed, Richard Nixon and his administration advocated for and oversaw a significant expansion of the program and laid the groundwork for the groundbreaking Food Stamp Reform bill 1977, which created the program as we know it today. Powerful conservative senators like Robert Dole and Richard Lugar allied with their Democratic counterparts to strengthen food stamps.  

Ronald Reagan initially instituted significant cuts in food stamps, but the program was expanded again in 1985 and 1987. While Newt Gingrich and his ilk were venomous in their opposition, George W. Bush seemed to be a quiet supporter. In 2002, he advocated the  restoration of food stamp eligibility to many legal immigrants who had been denied it as a result of a Clinton-era concession to the right. Eric Bost, the Bush administration’s Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services,  said, “I assure you, food stamps is not welfare.”  

But Eric Bost is long gone. Earlier this year, Paul Ryan proposed, and the House Republican caucus approved, a  budget that included a plan to make SNAP a block grant program, similar to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or what remains of welfare). This would be a  disaster. Block grants mean that each state will get a set chunk on money for food stamps every year. The amount of money can’t rise with need, so if a bunch of new people become eligible for food stamps—because of, say, a massive recession—the states will be unable to add them to the SNAP rolls. To make matters worse, the amount of money granted to the states for SNAP will be at the mercy of inflation and will be worth less every year. If  TANF is anything to go by, the lump sum won’t be increased, and food stamps will cover fewer and fewer people every year.     

This draconian policy proposal was  approved by almost every Republican in the House, including former anti-hunger advocates like Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO). All but five Senate Republicans voted for Ryan’s budget too,  including Lugar. The Democratic majority in the upper chamber defeated the Ryan bill, but Lugar, personifying the GOP’s hard-right swing on this policy, proposed  deep cuts to the program a few months later.  

Community Health Centers  

Community health centers have existed since the 1960s, introduced as part of the War on Poverty and really taking off in the 1970s. These health centers are meant to provide quality healthcare regardless of income or insurance status (they are generally priced on a sliding scale).  

Conservatives have appreciated the fact that community health centers are  phenomenally cost-effective. According to the National Association of Community Health Centers, the “Estimated Total Medical Savings Per Person” for center patients in 2009 was $1,262. Another study  shows that health centers save $24 billion a year.  

No less a conservative than George W. Bush was a big fan,  doubling federal spending on community health centers during his presidency. He  called them “an integral part of the healthcare system because they provide care for the low-income, for the newly arrived, and they take the pressure off of our hospital emergency rooms." 

It wasn’t just the president who supported community health centers. The Health Care Safety Net Act, which passed in 2008, was entirely  uncontroversial with hardly a hand raised against it.  

Fast-forward three years, and GOP attitudes have  changed dramatically. In 2011, the House decimated the $2.2 billion in appropriations annually allocated to health center funding, cutting more than one-third of the budget. The Affordable Care Act provided funds to further expand the number of community health centers across the nation, but the money mostly had to fill in the gaps left by Republican marauding instead. If the reduced annual appropriations remain in effect past 2014 the money from the Affordable Care Act will dry up, leaving community health centers with less federal support than they won in 2008. Millions could be left without care.