(MintPress) – A recent report generated by a group of Republicans on the United States Senate Budget Committee suggests that more than 100 million people, or around one-third of the U.S. population, are on some form of federal welfare. The report accounts for many more facets of public assistance other than the banner headline of temporary financial assistance, which 4.3 million Americans find themselves needing. But the timing of the report is interesting, as the naming of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate has put Ryan’s budget plan under the spotlight for its slashing of social programs.
First, the report: The committee combined around 80 different social programs to get its overall “welfare” figure. The Republican report lumps the traditional welfare category of temporary financial assistance with other programs such as job training efforts, Pell Grants and middle class tax cuts. But the committee left out two of the largest social programs: Medicare and Social Security. The committee justified its decision by saying that those two programs are services that people pay into throughout the course of their lives.
The report did account for Medicaid, which services 54 million disadvantaged people across the country. Another strange tallying of the report counted everyone in a household as benefiting from a social program, even if only one person in the household was using it.
Where the report lacks in conciseness and a clear objective, it makes up for in uncanny timing. The committee’s findings surface around the same time as the Romney/Ryan ticket begins its full-on campaign toward November and a full-on assault against welfare and social programs until then.
Making sense of Ryan’s proposal
Ryan’s budget proposal would not balance the U.S. budget for another 28 years if it were implemented today, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). But that doesn’t make social programs immune to early, drastic cuts. Other than federal health programs, Social Security and military spending, all federal social programs would be reduced to levels not seen in 80 years. That still means reductions for Medicare, Medicaid and similar aforementioned entities, just not to the extent as food stamp programs and other social services for students, the elderly and those in poverty. Food stamps would see limitations on how long a recipient could stay with the program; Pell Grants would see sharper caps and worker training programs would be slashed.
Ryan’s critics argue that his policies to shrink the safety net of social programs would essentially shred it until it wasn’t even a recognizable net at all. His budget approach is a comparative spending plan based on the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In order to alleviate the $15 trillion deficit, Ryan would take federal spending levels and make them on par with those seen in the 1950s. The CBO said the plan would shrink the size of government to 15 percent of the country’s total GDP by 2050, only slightly larger than the size of government in 1950.
In 1950, Medicare and Medicaid had not even been constructed yet, and Social Security only accounted for a miniscule fraction of the budget. So, largely, the budget was built around government workers’ salaries, defense and social programs such as unemployment insurance and education. In 1950, without taking Social Security into the question, the government built its budget around 13 percent of the GDP.
Ryan’s plan now takes the aforementioned programs and reduces them to 3.75 percent of the GDP. Relatively speaking, 0.75 percent of the GDP is $100 billion – a figure that is taken up solely by education and vocational training in today’s budget.
In the long term, Ryan’s budget would ultimately reduce 91 percent of all non-defense programs.
“Imagine if everything else disappeared. It would leave nothing for infrastructure. Nothing for unemployment insurance. Nothing for food stamps. Nothing for border patrol. Nothing for the FDA, FAA or FBI. Nothing for research and development,” wrote Derek Thompson of the Atlantic. “… Do you think it’s important to support our veterans with health care, education, and retirement security? Sorry. Veterans programs currently cost more than 1 percent of our GDP. There would be no room.”
Medicare and Medicaid would still be slimmed down, but not to the drastic degree of other programs. Ryan’s plan would cut Medicaid by nearly $1.4 trillion between 2013 and 2022, a move that the Kaiser Family Foundation says “would almost inevitably result in dramatic reductions in coverage.” Ryan would then turn Medicare into a voucher-based program that seniors would buy into by 2023, reducing the government’s financial obligation.
Correlation vs. causation
The increased need in social safety nets comes as the U.S. still struggles through a recession that has the current unemployment rate at 8.2 percent, leaving more citizens in need of federal assistance since the Great Depression. A study published by the Cato Institute – a libertarian policy center – found that federal welfare spending in the fiscal year 2011 totaled $668 billion. The study accounted for means-tested programs and in-kind benefits.
The Cato Institute argued that the growing levels of safety net spending has done nothing to help the unemployed find work, but rather simply allow them to live with the need to find work.
“The vast majority of current programs are focused on making poverty more comfortable – giving poor people more food, better shelter, health care and so forth – rather than giving people the tools that will help them escape poverty,” the institute’s report said. “It would make sense therefore to shift our anti-poverty efforts from government programs that simply provide money or goods and services to those who are living in poverty to efforts to create the conditions and incentives that will make it easier for people to escape poverty.”
Romney has long called for a reform to the unemployment benefits system, saying in a debate in February that he supports a personal account for welfare recipients to withdraw their own saved money from instead of “having endless unemployment benefits.”
“Unemployment benefits, I think they’ve gone on a long, long, long time. We have to find ways to reduce our spending on a lot of the anti-poverty programs and unemployment programs,” Romney said during the debate.
Romney has been quoted as saying that the welfare programs, not the economy, have created the culture of poverty that we know today. Huffington Post business editor Peter Goodman said that kind of rhetoric, along with the notion that welfare is a luxury, has become the GOP calling card for welfare reform based on generalizations.
“Romney underscored that point aggressively with his choice of running mate, Paul Ryan, who has built his political brand through a shrill determination to demolish government programs,” Goodman wrote. “This is election-time porn for mean-spirited Republicans, a play on demeaning stereotypes of poor people favored by those who view poverty not as an economic condition but as a moral failing.”
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