'Social Safety Net' Less Safe As Cuts Debated
As Congress and the White House debate cutting billions of dollars from the federal budget, there's little talk about protecting the social safety net, those government programs intended to help the poor and disadvantaged.
That's a lot different from an earlier budget battle, when Ronald Reagan came into office 30 years ago. Reagan promised to drastically reduce the size of government, but he also said there were limits. In his first address to Congress, he said that his new budget would not hurt the truly needy.
"The poverty-stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need — can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts," he said.
It turned out that wasn't completely true — the Reagan budget cut food stamps, welfare and Medicaid.
"But it's interesting that they felt politically they had to say that," says Robert Greenstein, head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
And indeed, the need to preserve the social safety net was a major theme throughout the 1981 budget debates.
Greenstein thinks the tone in the early 1980s was much different from what it is today. He says one reason is that "the Republicans in Congress now are well to the right of Republicans like Bob Dole or Howard Baker in the '80s."
Dole and Baker were Senate leaders more inclined to support government spending for the poor. In fact, Dole was among the strongest congressional backers of food stamps.
Today's Republicans — especially those elected in November — are primarily focused on reducing the size of government.
But even President Obama has proposed cutting spending for the poor to help reduce the debt. And Greenstein says the president rarely talks about all the things he has done to help low-income Americans.
Greenstein says the administration has clearly come to the conclusion that "it's not good politics to talk about people at the bottom. The mantra is the middle class, the middle class, the middle class."
He thinks part of that is due to the bad economy, which has many people feeling squeezed.
Eugene Steuerle worked on tax and budget issues in the Reagan Treasury Department and is now with the Urban Institute. He says one reason no one talks about preserving the social safety net today is that lawmakers have given themselves little choice but to cut it. They've taken taxes and entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, off the budget-cutting table, so there's not much left.
"Even if Republicans say, 'We really don't want to hurt the social safety net' and Democrats say, 'We don't want to hurt it, we want to expand it,' they've pushed our budget to a world where the social safety net is the target of opportunity," says Steuerle.
He says that's a far cry from the early 1980s, when — despite the rhetoric — taxes were raised and entitlements trimmed to help bring the deficit under control.
By contrast, when House Republicans voted to cut $61 billion in spending last month, they included steep reductions in programs such as Head Start, community health centers, and nutrition for women, infants and children.
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center thinks this also reflects a change in public attitudes. "There's a greater disposition to see the role of government reduced and less support for an activist government than there was back in 1981 when Ronald Reagan first took office," Kohut says. Although he adds that people favor cutting the budget until they're asked about specific programs.
Then "they say 'Uhhhhhhhhh. I'm not so sure we want to see that cut,' " he says.
That's one reason those pushing budget cuts tend to talk about them in the broadest terms, as in the need to reduce the debt. In a speech Feb. 27, House Speaker John Boehner talked about the challenge even more broadly, calling it a moral issue.
"The more the government spends and borrows today, the more our children are forced to pay," he told a gathering of religious broadcasters. "The damage is as much moral as it is fiscal."
But anti-poverty groups — who think preserving the social safety net is also a moral issue — are fighting the cuts with specifics. They're trying to round up lots of stories about how the cuts would affect individuals and families, in an effort to stop them from going into effect.
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