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Winning the war on the social safety net

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Woe the poor, misguided anti-poverty program. It's been 50 years since the inception of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, yet there is still rampant poverty in pockets of the United States. So the conservative right sheds crocodile tears as they blame all remaining poverty on poverty programs themselves.

This point of view is on the rise lately as Rep. Paul Ryan has famously claimed that programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, supplemental nutrition programs, the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the minimum wage, rural housing assistance grants, and other anti-poverty programs are nothing more than bloated bureaucracies that offer no discernible return on the investment.

Today conservative radio host Mark Belling, subbing for Rush Limbaugh, took that logic a step further, rationalizing that absolutely nothing would be different in America had those anti-poverty programs never been enacted. (Though studies have found that those claims are demonstrably false.)

But what Ryan and Belling failed to ask is, if the last 50 years has done so little to quell poverty, what about the 28 years of Republican fiscal policy that filled over half of those five decades? How did supply-side economics, championed by Ronald Reagan and carried through in into the George HW Bush era and his son's two rounds of tax cuts, help end poverty? How did the booming stock markets of 1982-87,1995-2000, 2002-2007 and 2010-2014 help alleviate hunger or homelessness, illness or unemployment?

In fact, if you want to take a real 50-year perspective, one can argue that even John Kennedy's much heralded tax cuts did little to help the poor.

You can't have it both ways. If anti-poverty programs didn't end poverty, then trickle-down economics didn't trickle down. Supply-side economics didn't improve supply or demand. If there's no empirical proof that anti-poverty programs work, then there's no empirical proof that giving to private charities works, that philanthropy helps anyone, or that volunteer work is good for society.

The truth is, we will never know what poverty in the United States might have looked like without five decades of anti-poverty programs. (Just as we'll never know how the Great Depression would have played out without the New Deal.)

But we have anecdotal evidence to show that tens of millions of people were helped by those programs. Every single one of us knows someone who made it through a tough patch thanks to a few unemployment checks, a few months on food stamps, the Veterans Health Administration, school lunch programs, children's health insurance, or the free clinics made possible by Medicaid when private healthcare was out of reach.

In fact, President Obama is wrong when he urges Democrats to run in 2014 on healthcare. They should run on the whole of the safety net. Healthcare is but one piece of the broad blanket of protections for the working poor that Democrats favor and Republicans want to repeal.

If Republicans want the 2014 election to be about repealing the social safety net, bring it on. Democrats should make Republican candidates choke on the word repeal (just like they're trying to make Democrats choke on the word Obamacare).

Instead of letting them run just on repealing Obamacare, let them defend dismantling the whole of the Great Society and New Deal. Make them explain their desires to turn Medicare into a voucher system, privatize Social Security, repeal the minimum wage and child labor laws, reduce the VA budget, drug test unemployment recipients, and cut back on food stamps and other anti-hunger programs. Let's see who will vote to take us back to 1931, when old people starved in the streets and the poor and unemployed lined up for free soup.

Then again, I suppose there's no empirical proof that soup kitchens or Social Security ever helped anyone, either.

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