By Jay Bookman
Today, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan will release a budget proposal that alleges to balance the federal budget by 2024. However, the true goal of his proposal is not fiscal in nature. His true goal is ideological, and in an op-ed published Monday in the Wall Street Journal, Ryan makes that point pretty plainly:
“A budget is a means to an end, and the end isn’t a neat and tidy spreadsheet. It’s the well-being of all Americans. By giving families stability and protecting them from tax hikes, our budget will promote a healthier economy and help create jobs. Most important, our budget will reignite the American Dream, the idea that anyone can make it in this country.”
However, dramatically slashing food stamps, as Ryan proposes, will not “give families stability” or open doors to pursue the American dream. Slashing Medicaid, which provides health care for poor families, is not going to offer stability either. Slashing federal aid to education, including student loans, will undermine rather than improve the ability of young people of lesser means to advance. Turning Medicare into a private voucher program will make senior citizens more vulnerable, not less. In an era in which working people enjoy less and less of the nation’s bounty, such steps will leave them even more desperate, with fewer resources to draw upon.
Again, let’s be clear: The Ryan budget is not a response to our fiscal situation. It uses that situation as an excuse to continue a philosophical debate reaching back at least 80 years in this country, back to the founding of Social Security. The Republican Party fought Social Security back then, and since then it has tried repeatedly to kill the program, most recently with President Bush’s effort to privatize it.
“Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people,” one GOP congressman said in 1935, referring to Social Security. The party’s basic message and rhetoric — government enslavement, economic ruin, etc., — hasn’t changed much since.
In the early ’60s, to cite another example, Republicans fought bitterly against the creation of Medicare, and then Medicaid as well. Ronald Reagan railed that Medicare would lead to socialism and predicted government would soon claim the power to dictate where doctors could live and practice.
And from there, Reagan asked?
“All of us can see what happens once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment. From here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism, to determining his pay. And pretty soon your son won’t decide, when he’s in school, where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do….”Utter and complete nonsense.
In his op-ed, Ryan makes it quite clear that much of the burden of his proposed $4.6 trillion in budget cuts is intended to fall on the poor. Not to worry, though. It will be good for them:
“After the welfare reforms of 1996, child poverty fell by double digits. This budget extends those reforms to other federal aid programs. It gives states flexibility so they can tailor programs like Medicaid and food stamps to their people’s needs. It encourages states to get people off the welfare rolls and onto payrolls. We shouldn’t measure success by how much we spend. We should measure it by how many people we help. Those who protect the status quo must answer to the 46 million Americans living in poverty.”Again, we see the Randian implication that government assistance creates poverty, and that withdrawal of assistance will reduce poverty. But let’s look more closely at Ryan’s evidence, contained in the claim that “after the welfare reforms of 1996, child poverty fell by double digits.” He is clearly trying to suggest welfare had kept people trapped in poverty, and that reducing welfare reduced poverty.
However, the data show that the decline in child poverty mentioned by Ryan had begun in 1993, well before welfare reform was enacted; the improvement was driven by the longest economic expansion in our nation’s history, not by withdrawal of government aid. In fact, by 2000, just four years after passage of the welfare reforms mentioned by Ryan, child poverty began rising again, and it rose steadily throughout the next decade.
But today, even in this tough economy, it remains well below levels of the early ’60s, before most anti-poverty programs were enacted. Among black children, for example, the poverty rate has fallen from 65 percent in 1965 to 38.6 percent in 2011.
So here’s the bottom line: In a society in which the gap between the rich and everybody else grows larger by the day, Ryan proposes to make that gap larger still through a reduction in government programs and tax changes that benefit the wealthy. We just went through an election fought out on just those issues, an election in which Ryan played a prominent role, and which he and his party lost.
But apparently, the message hasn’t stuck yet.