A safety-net, not a hammock

Allow me a moment to express my disgust with some comments made by Rep. Paul Ryan.

Allow me a moment to express my disgust with some comments made by Rep. Paul Ryan.

He’s out selling a House Republican budget whose stated particulars include $4.6 trillion in tax cuts weighted strongly to the affluent alongside punishing cuts to social programs and the denial of health insurance coverage to tens of millions of people covered under health reform.

The Congressional Budget Office cannot score Rep. Ryan’s proposals without specific details. However, Ryan’s staff provided CBO with general percentages to examine the long-term implications. Among other things, spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program \would decline “from 2 percent of GDP in 2011 to 1¼ percent in 2030 and 1 percent in 2050.” Meanwhile, other mandatory spending, and all discretionary spending, would decline “from 12½ percent of GDP in 2011 to 5¾ percent in 2030 and 3¾ percent in 2050.” In my opinion, President Obama fairly described Ryan’s plan when he called it “thinly-veiled social Darwinism.” Ryan’s proposals have only one redeeming feature: their political impracticality. Like Jon Cohn, I find this appalling.

I’m even more appalled by a story I found only today. Ryan and other Republicans are apparently wrapping their proposals within the flag of the 1996 welfare reform. That in itself isn’t surprising. You don’t need Frank Luntz focus group to find out that welfare reform is popular, and that welfare recipients are not. Framing budget cuts as cutting welfare therefore has obvious appeal. Whether welfare reform actually produced effective or more humane public policy is not particularly relevant to this political calculation.

Anyway, Ryan has now called his proposed budget “welfare reform round two.” Arthur Delaney and Michael McAuliff quote him thusly in the Huffington Post:

“Let’s take those principles of welfare reform that were extremely successful in getting people out of lives of dependency and back on their feet,” Ryan said. His plan would turn the funding for federal programs like food stamps and housing assistance into block grants… States would then set work requirements and time limits for the benefits.

“This is a path that we believe reignites and renews the American idea,” Ryan said. “It reclaims the opportunity society with a safety net, which we do believe must exist for people who cannot help themselves, for people who are down on their luck, so they can get back on their feet.”

“But we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

I doubt Rep. Ryan was talking about my brother-in-law Vincent, who requires Medicaid and food stamps because he is permanently disabled. I suspect that most conservatives would be embarrassed to learn the true impact on the intellectually disabled of conservative state policies.

Ryan is speaking about many of the direct care workers who assist disabled persons such as Vincent. We trust these women and men to care for our loved ones. They clean soiled linens. They calm agitated people suffering from autism spectrum disorders. Their professional peers  do similarly worthy work as nurse’s aides, and child care workers. They earn very low wages, nationally averaging just above $11/hr. Many provide health care while they, themselves, go uninsured.

Like their counterparts who scrub floors, change diapers, or operate cash registers at McDonald’s, these are the lucky duckies whose kids rely upon Medicaid or CHIP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other elements of our safety-net. Below them on the economic ladder are low-income single moms trying to raise their kids on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), traditional cash welfare. Many of these women can’t find a job in the midst of an economic crisis. Still others are quite poor, yet for one reason or another are ineligible for TANF aid.

Few people are resting on “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Welfare rolls are at record lows. In some states, maximum TANF cash benefit for a family of three are below $200. That’s well below the $350 that Rep. Ryan apparently paid for a single bottle of wine at a swank business dinner.

I live and work in the Chicago southland, near hundreds of thousands of poor people who would be deeply hurt by policies Congressman Ryan espouses. Some are jobless. Others work hard every day in crummy jobs. Others are students in elementary school. They don’t need lectures from a conspicuously pampered congressman regarding their “will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

I don’t know who originated this hammock metaphor. Republicans such as William Weld have deployed it before. Whoever made it up, it’s pretty disgraceful.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

33 thoughts on “A safety-net, not a hammock”

    1. I prefer my own term: “The Goldfinger Rule”:

      “I don’t expect you to talk, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

      The ‘welfare as a hammock’ rhetoric is merely fodder for the rubes so that these “conservative’s” true goal, the complete dismantling of any semblance of a welfare state, can be accomplished.

      Ryan is a Randian cultist. Anyone not rich is a leech and a moocher and deserves no mercy and no quarter.

  1. Welfare recipients are indeed not popular or politically powerful, but as you know one group who will be hit by these changes are more politically powerful: The elderly. Likewise, a number of middle class families who believe they receive no social benefits are going to have to move dad or mom out of the nursing home and into their spare room, because Medicaid will not be there to pick up the cost.

    Apart from the human misery aspects, that creates a political force that will I think prevent the gutting of Medicaid.

    1. The people who think they recieve no social benefits are not likely to vote in their own best interest. After the dirty deed is done, after Grama moves in it will be a long hard slog to get the policies put to rights again. The GOP knows it’s a lot easier to smash stuff than it is to build.
      And as to any embarrassment conservatives might feel about how their pet policies affect the disabled? For three decades plus the GOP has been merrily shreading the social safty net. They don’t care and are shameless.

    2. Welfare recipients are indeed not popular or politically powerful’. I hate to tell you, the politically powerful are welfare recipients. Tax cuts and corporate subsidies are welfare.

    3. Uh no, wrong! Didn’t you read the Ryan plan? The elderly face no cuts at all. All the sacrifice is being shouldered by the young. Those 55 and older are grandfathered in.

      1. Do you think for one second that once the Ryan Plan takes effect and starts to fail that the elderly will be exempt from big cuts?

        Where else can they look for large cuts after cutting all the other “social” programs? The elderly are the only ones that are actually using a hammock.

  2. “Hammock?” Doesn’t that rhyme with “watermelon?”

    Don’t take this rhetoric at face value. It is all code for one thing.

  3. This is of a piece with the notion that people go out and consume a bunch more healthcare when prices are low. One really has to wonder about the mental stability of people who claim to think the way these politicians do.

  4. Why is it that giving money to millionaires & billionaires gives them incentive to create jobs but giving money to poor people strips them of incentive? Ryan IS for welfare — corporate welfare. What a disgustingly soulless little man he is.

  5. “The poor live too well and the rich live too poorly.”
    “The poor have too much money and the rich don’t have enough.”
    “It is a lot more enjoyable to be rich when there are a lot of poor people around.”
    “Living well is the best revenge on those who are envious of our comforts.”
    “Everything that is wrong is Obama’s fault because of his commitment to Kenyan Socialism.”
    “Liberals are too lazy to vote while our base is energized.”
    The Republicans believe all this, here’s hoping NONE of it is true.

  6. The goal actually is to get PROGRESSIVES combing through the rolls looking for the lazy and freeloading PRECISELY so that your brother Vincent continues to get what he needs.

    If you don’t start by admitting there is a freeloading problem and try to really truly solve it, you don’t gain the credibility you need to convince the right.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to get the conversation to this level.

    1. First, whose goal is this and what’s your assertion based on?

      Second, no program will ever be perfect. Asking for perfection is just another way of killing it. Where’s the evidence for all this fraud, and please give it by percentage, not absolute figures.

  7. Why am I paying taxes to take care of your brother-in-law Vincent? He is your family – why don’t you take care of him? Why do you want to force me to sacrifice my time and labor – in taxes – to do what you are not doing?

    All of us need to be responsible for ourselves and our families. The federal government currently borrows over 40% of what it spends. We just don’t have the money to continue this way.

    1. Assuming your parents are still living, I could just as easily ask why my tax dollars are going to pay their medical bills through Medicare, given that past contributions do not come close to covering current costs. After all, they are your family, so shouldn’t you and your siblings be covering their medical costs?

    2. So, Mr. Kaplan, if you are involved in a traffic accident or some other type of life-threatening incident, I hope no first responders will come to your aid. You can just bleed to death. I don’t want my taxes being used to save the life of a creep like you.

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