The Republican Welfare State

I was watching the Sunday news programs yesterday, and on This Week, both David Brooks and George Will used the term “Middle-Class Entitlement Programs” to describe the problems with our budget. What they were referring to is the SCHIP program, with it’s ability to reach kids whose parents make as much as $80,000 a year. Both conceded that Bush’s threat to veto the bill was tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot, but they both insisted that such programs (and without naming them directly, they were referring to Social Security and Medicare, also) were ruining our nation’s balance sheets unnecessarily. Because, of course, the middle class can handle it on their own.

This is the classic case of the Republican Welfare State, a self-fulfilling prophesy and a recursive logical argument which is their party’s platform.

Republicans abhor social entitlement programs, we know that. But what is often less obvious is the fact that it is precisely their objection to social programs that creates the programs that they so hate. This is what I mean by the Republican Welfare State.

The argument goes that, while no social programs are truly needed, any program that is active should only benefit those people who lack any means to provide for themselves. Social Security is a waste, because the same middle class people that pay those FICA taxes could just as easily have invested that money in the stock market – and made “way more money” off their investments. Actual “welfare,” however, is at least keeping poor people fed who don’t go to churches, and while Republicans insist that “Rugged Individualism” and church programs are the only real way to help the poor, they can concede this program.

At the same time, though, Republicans readily acknowledge that the DSS system and other programs aimed at the poor are a trap. They point out that, once the individual or the single mother becomes dependent on these programs, it can be difficult or nearly impossible to break this dependency. Once you’re in that position, especially if you have no skills, it becomes easier to stay within the program than to improve yourself and break away.

Certainly, there is some small merit to this second half of the argument. But what is never spoken in political circles is that it is precisely this insistence that social programs only benefit the poor that creates the economic trap of poverty in America.

It is the Republican insistence on keeping these programs small that makes the threshold for qualification so low. But once you’re in the system, it’s not a threshold of qualification, its a threshold of disqualification. It’s the outer edge of a shrinking safety net, beyond which it is possible to fall who knows how far? And if that barrier is a Burger King job, you’re going to find yourself naked of any benefits – and rationally, any real means of subsistence – the minute you go out and find a job.

At the same time, there are “middle class” families whom the Republicans deem fit to take life on their own, but with whom none of these pundits would deign to swap paychecks.  These are the families that are struggling every day to keep shoes on the feet of their ever-more-rapidly growing children. They don’t make enough to live with any sense of comfort, yet they make too much to get any assistance from the government. These are the “work hard and play by the rules” folks of Bill Clinton’s America, and many of them resent the Welfare State as much as anyone.

And there’s your constituency: poor or nearly-poor working-class families who are out to reap revenge on the Welfare State. Hard-working, good men with axle grease under their fingernails, two kids to feed and a negative balance on the checkbook. People who just want their goddamned tax money back, who don’t have the time or the luxury to give a damn about anyone else’s family but their own. Jealousy mixed with frustration gives birth to the “Welfare Mama,” the fictitious character of Republican resentment who lives to produce babies who live to be welfare credits.

And the New Deal Breaker Republicans are only too happy to play that card for all it’s worth. It’s not rich people listening to AM radio, it’s angry, frustrated, jealous middle-class men. They get fed every single abuse of taxpayer money under the sun, save those abuses which benefit the Military Industrial Complex. They hear about all the ways in which their tax money has been wasted by the government, always with the focus coming back to welfare. They’re pumped full of resentment, pumped full of a naive, foolhardy sense that they could be the Investor Class if only they had that twenty dollars of FICA money back. And then they are unleashed on the polling stations, actively promoting the very politicians that create the conditions they so resent. Marcus Antonius would be proud.

Because at the heart of their jealousy is the cold, hard truth that they, too need some help from time to time. Because they don’t get it, they want what they’ve put into a system that’s failed them back, and I think that’s understandable.

The point of programs like SCHIP, which extends the benefits of a social program well beyond the most meager of means, is to extend the safety net out to where its really safe, and to provide the help we can afford to give and which middle class families have a right to expect. SCHIP moves the threshold for disqualification well into the income levels where most people get health benefits through their employers, thus eliminating the risky no-man’s land benefit gap. At the same time, it benefits those lower-middle class working families who really just need a small break to capitalize on.

And of course, if you don’t like SCHIP, all you have to do is not enroll.  Be a rugged individual; be like Howard Roark, and insist that you, if you alone, will not be party to it.

SCHIP provides the most basic of services for those struggling to make ends meet: health care for the children.  No Cadillacs, no clothing, just kids with healthy teeth.  And it provides an inroad into what a growing consensus of Americans realize is an inevitability: universal health care coverage.

So, I guess the struggle is between the Republicans who want to build their constituency through resentment and abuse, or the Democrats who want to actually help the people they serve.  Tough choice, that.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

2 replies on “The Republican Welfare State”

Great post! It is also interesting to see if the SCHIP reauthorization is actually successful in achieving its proposed ends (whether or not we agree with them). There is concern that SCHIP is not an efficient or cost-effective method for insuring America’s poor children (see:

Comments are closed.