Compassionate Conservatism? 4 Popular Safety-Net Programs Tea Party Republicans Have Turned Against in the Age of Obama
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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?”
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.
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.
The Earned Income Tax Credit
Conservatives love shaking their heads in righteous consternation and asking: “Did you know that only 53 percent of Americans pay taxes?” They’ve even got a Tumblr about it.
This juicy little sound bite ignores several key points. First, those 47 percent of people who “don’t pay taxes” actually just don’t owe any federal income taxes, largely because they don’t have much income. Second, they do pay state, local, sales, payroll, gasoline, and other excise taxes -- federal income taxes made up just 22.7 percent of all taxes paid in this country last year. (Note that rich people get to avoid the vast majority of their payroll taxes, which represent about the same share of the total as federal income taxes.) Third, the reason many of the so-called 47 percent don’t pay income taxes is because of the earned income tax credit (EITC), a policy instituted in the 1970s as a more conservative way to boost working-class incomes than the minimum wage.
The EITC essentially rewards parents who work hard for low pay with a break on their incomes taxes and, in many cases, a refund. It was expanded and greatly strengthened under Ronald Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986, which indexed it to inflation so the benefit wouldn’t stagnate. He declared the tax program “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job-creation measure to come out of Congress.” To a lesser degree George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush beefed the EITC up too, while the latter also allowed bipartisan moderates to expand access to the child tax credit to low-income people too.
“It’s a real blend of conservative and liberal values,” says Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “If you talk to average people, this is one that Americans are generally for: a big catch for [American attitudes towards social programs] is that the person on the receiving end is doing their best and working hard. [By that logic], the earned income tax credit is something conservatives should like.”
That’s not the way today’s GOP sees it. The “We are the 53 Percent” nonsense is an implicit attack on the earned income tax credit. But there have been plenty of explicit attacks as well from Senator John Cornyn, R-Tex., to conservative Fox News anchors who deride it as “a form of welfare income redistribution.” More substantively, Republican state politicians are actively attempting to slash the program and Tea Party icon and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has promised to “do away with EITC,” if she is elected.
The Democratic majority in the Senate and President Obama’s veto pen have defeated many of the worst of these reactionary excesses. But what happens if, and when, the Republicans have a more powerful position in Washington, D.C.? So much for compassionate conservatism.