10 Brutal Ways the American Safety Net Is Being Shredded
On the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act of 1935, which established the social security system in the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal is on life support as the American middle class continues to be squeezed and millions of Americans struggle with poverty.
The U.S. desperately needed a New Deal 3.0 after the crash of September 2008 and a program of aggressive reforms. Instead, most of the welfare that followed the Panic of 2008 has been corporate welfare rather than programs to help America’s embattled poor and middle class. Overall, the U.S. has been moving away from the New Deal when it should be reinvigorating it. Below are 10 ways in which the New Deal (and by extension, LBJ’s Great Society) continues to be under attack in the United States.
1. Income Inequality Is Going from Bad to Worse
FDR firmly believed that capitalism cannot function well without a strong middle class, and even auto magnate Henry Ford agreed with him: Ford famously said that American workers needed to be paid a decent wage in order to be able to afford his products. And during the post-FDR America of the 1950s and 1960s, having a robust middle class was great for a variety of businesses. But in 2015—with the gains of the New Deal having been imperiled by everything from union busting to the outsourcing of millions of American jobs—income inequality in the U.S. is a huge problem. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report on income inequality among OECD members and found that the U.S. was among the worst offenders. The U.S., Mexico and Turkey had some of highest income inequality of OECD countries, while Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland and Belgium fared much better. OECD Secretary-General Angel GurrÃa commented that “high inequality is bad for growth,” and he’s absolutely right.
2. Republicans Yearn for Social Security Privatization
Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Republican, he supported elements of the New Deal and saw the need for a strong social safety net: in fact, Eisenhower expanded social security, and in 1954, he bluntly asserted that any oligarchs who would “attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor law and farm programs” were “stupid.” But in the 21st century, Republicans have been going after social security with a vengeance. The privatization of social security was proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004, and far-right Republicans, the Tea Party and wingnut lobbying groups like the Club for Growth have been doubling down on the idea of privatizing social security. GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush called for social security privatization at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in June, and he also favors raising the social security retirement age to 69 or 70, which would be especially bad for blue-collar workers who have spent decades in physically demanding jobs.
3. The 1% Continue to Dodge Taxes
FDR had no problem asking the ultra-wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes: the U.S.’ top marginal tax rate rose to 94% in the early 1940s, when the country entered World War II. Taxes for the ultra-rich didn’t go down much under Republican Eisenhower, who lowered the top tax rate to 91% in the 1950s—and after that rate decreased to 28% under President Reagan, it rose to 39.6% under President Clinton and decreased to 35% under President George W. Bush. Looking at the last 80 years of tax history, one sees a clear pattern: the American middle class does much better when the 1% pay their fair share of taxes. And even though the Tea Party tries to paint Barack Obama as a soak-the-rich president, their assertion is laughable because Obama extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t been nearly as forceful as FDR or Eisenhower when it comes to taxing the 1%.
4. The Minimum Wage Is Much Too Low
One of the important elements of the New Deal was FDR’s strong belief in a national minimum wage. FDR began to push for a federal minimum wage after taking office in January 1933, saying, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean the wages of a decent living.” And Congress enacted one in 1938, when the U.S.’ first federal minimum wage was set at 25 cents per hour. But in recent years, the federal minimum wage (which was raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009) has not kept up with inflation. Economist Robert Reich has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which he sees as a crucial part of economic recovery. And in some cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle, city councils have raised their local minimum wages to that amount. But at the federal level, an increase to even $10.10 an hour (President Obama’s proposal) is a steep uphill climb when both houses of Congress are dominated by far-right Republicans who hate the poor with a passion.
5. Infrastructure Continues to Deteriorate
The New Deal was great for the U.S.’ infrastructure thanks to programs that built or strengthened everything from roads to water and electric systems to municipal power plants. But in recent years, the American infrastructure has been seriously decaying—and a major wake-up call came on May 12, when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia and eight passengers were killed. But the nation’s railways are only one of the ways in which the U.S.’ infrastructure has deteriorated. According to Ray LaHood (former secretary of transportation for the Obama Administration), 70,000 bridges in the U.S. are now structurally deficient. That is in addition to all the roads that are in desperate need of repair. And when it comes to high-speed rail travel, the U.S. lags way behind Europe (where one can get from London to Brussels in just under two hours or from Madrid to Barcelona in less than three hours).
6. Union Representation Has Reached Historic Lows
One of the most important pieces of New Deal-era legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a.k.a. the Wagner Act, which did a lot to advance labor unions in the U.S.: by the mid-1950s, around 35% of America’s labor force was unionized. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a mere 11.1% of salaried U.S. workers (factoring in both the public and private sectors) were union members in 2014. Among private-sector workers, the number was a paltry 6.6%. And the decline of unions has been encouraged bad working conditions: according to the Economic Policy Institute, executives at large companies earned, on average, 296 times as much as their average workers in 2013 compared to only 20 times as much in 1965. But as much as labor unions have declined in the U.S., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (a GOP presidential hopeful for 2016) and his fellow Republicans would like to see them decline even more. Walker recently set a disturbing precedent in that state when he supported anti-union legislation that prohibits private-sector unions from requiring members to pay union dues; Walker has, in essence, made Wisconsin a northern “right to work” state. And it’s safe to say that Walker, based on his actions in Wisconsin, would be among the most anti-union presidents in U.S. history.
7. “Too Big to Fail” Is Bigger Than Ever
Unlike many of today’s extreme-right Republicans and neoliberal corporatist Democrats, FDR was not afraid of offending the banking sector. FDR said of the banksters of the 1930s, “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” One of the New Deal achievements that banksters detested was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which mandated a strict separation of commercial and investment banking and was designed to prevent another major Wall Street calamity like the crash of 1929. Glass-Steagall served the U.S. well for many years: although there were some tough recessions in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s, none of them cut as deep as the Great Depression. But the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a major blow to the New Deal and paved the way for the crash of September 2008, clearly the most devastating financial event in the U.S. since 1929. Unfortunately, there was no real banking reform after the 2008 calamity, and as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are now “80% larger” than they were in 2007. Critics of the banking sector propose bringing back Glass-Steagall, including Reich (who warns that another major Wall Street crash “is not unlikely”) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And Sanders has proposed New Deal-like legislation that would break up the U.S.’ largest banks.
8. Medicare, An Expansion of the New Deal, Is a Major GOP Target
Medicare, which established a single-payer health care system for Americans 65 and older, was not part of the New Deal per se: Medicare came into being in 1965 as part of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (which was very much an extension of the New Deal). And the program proved to be so popular that even Republican President Richard Nixon (who was considered an arch-conservative in his day) expanded Medicare in both 1969 and 1972. But these days, far-right GOP wingnuts in the House of Representatives—especially Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee—have repeatedly called for drastic Medicare cuts and for replacing traditional Medicare with a privatized voucher program. In June, a variety of pro-Medicare groups (including the Alliance for Retired Americans and the Medicare Rights Center) sent a joint letter to the House criticizing representatives who wanted to cut $700 million from the Medicare program.
9. Home Ownership Is Becoming Increasingly Difficult for Many Americans, and the Rent Is Too Damn High
Before the New Deal, five-year or 10-year mortgages were the norm in the U.S., and were unaffordable for most Americans. But FDR saw home ownership as a crucial part of building a strong middle class: between the Federal Housing Administration, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the introduction of 30-year fixed-rate mortgages—all of which came about under FDR—home ownership in the U.S. gradually increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, home ownership in the U.S. went from 45% in 1920 and 47% in 1930 to 55% in 1950, 61% in 1960 and 62% in 1970. But the Crash of 2008 has been terrible for American homeowners, resulting in countless foreclosures, and banksters have been allowed to acquire and rent out many foreclosed homes. The private equity firm Blackstone Group had, as of late 2013, bought almost 40,000 homes in the U.S. in order to rent them. To make matters worse, all those post-2008 foreclosures have caused rents to skyrocket all over the country. And the more one pays in rent, the harder it is to save for a down payment on a home. To quote Jimmy McMillan, the rent is too damn high.
10. Wingnut Attacks on Food Stamps Never End
The American food stamps program started on a pilot basis under FDR’s secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, in 1939 but became permanent when LBJ signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law as part of his Great Society. In recent years, the U.S.’ economic decline has been so painful that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans poor enough to quality for food stamps was 46.2 million in 2014 compared to only 17 million in 2000. Food stamps, as envisioned under the New Deal and the Great Society, are designed to be a stepping stone for the poor—and the benefits (which presently average $127.91 per month per person, according to USDA figures) are hardly lavish. But that has not prevented Republicans in Congress from repeatedly proposing dramatic food stamp cuts during the Great Recession. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has been trying to punish and shame food stamp recipients by subjecting them to drug-testing.