The Social Safety Net and the Ideologues

I know I tend to harp on the difference between thoughtful policymaking and ideology. Good policymaking depends significantly upon expertise and research, learning from experience (otherwise known as trial and error) and careful empirical observation; ideology dismisses poor results and unfortunate side-effects as irrelevancies or attributes them to insufficiently thorough implementation.

Congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, and with the likely concurrence of the Senate GOP and Mitch McConnell, are determined to make drastic changes to American social policy. To the extent they are not prompted by corruption (that is, acting on behalf of and at the behest of their donor base), their desired changes to Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are entirely ideological. They don’t want to improve these programs; they want to dismantle them.

It has long been an article of Rightwing faith that welfare programs—indeed, social insurance of any sort—creates unhealthy dependency. (Somehow, that belief does not extend to corporate welfare. But that is a post for another time.)

The evidence, not unsurprisingly, suggests otherwise.

There is substantial research suggesting that countries with more robust social safety networks experience fewer socially undesirable behaviors: less crime, less divorce, less child abuse…the list goes on. Rates of murder, robbery, burglary, rape, and other serious crimes are generally much higher in the U.S. than in industrialized nations offering universal health care and other social supports. Homicide rates in the U.S. have consistently ranged between three and twenty times those of other industrialized countries.

It is particularly notable that Canada’s murder rate is far below that of the U.S. (running around a fourth of our levels). For homicides committed by youth, the U.S. rate has been as much as ten times the Canadian levels. Yet Canadians watch American television, log onto American websites, read American publications, share our culture. There is also widespread gun ownership in Canada.

What most differentiates us is the fact that Canadians have guaranteed health care and less social insecurity.

The U.S. is more economically stratified than any other advanced country. Its levels of income inequality and relative poverty are triple those of other wealthy nations. Scholars tell us that developed countries having relatively low levels of income inequality have low crime rates; in countries where one segment of the population has great wealth while another segment is in extreme poverty, crime rates are high.

As a 2015 article in The Week noted, the differences in approach to social welfare are ideologically based.

Conservatives often want to tie safety net programs to having a job, so that people aren’t tempted by handouts to hold off working. There are work requirements for food stamps. More heavy requirements were added to traditional welfare in the late 1990s. And now Republicans are suggesting requirements for Medicaid as well. This makes little sense. The much more generous European systems have higher labor force participation, and the U.S. economy has done progressively worse over the last three decades at actually creating enough jobs for everyone to have.

Add it all up, and it’s not surprising that most other advanced Western countries have much lower poverty rates than America.

Recent research has tied declining rates of marriage to poverty, and has confirmed that “failing schools” are typically those trying to educate children from impoverished homes—that growing up in poverty creates identifiable physical and emotional impediments to learning.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that a strong social safety net reduces crime and other social dysfunctions that cost Americans significant tax dollars—and that the availability of such social supports does not discourage workforce participation.

Evidence, however, is no match for rigid ideology. Americans should expect a full-court effort to gut Social Security and Medicare by zealots impervious to evidence.


  1. Regarding the Republican rants and threats since President Obama’s election(s), “… their desired changes to Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are entirely ideological. They don’t want to improve these programs; they want to dismantle them.” They have not yet found a religious (Christian) basis for their NEED to accomplish this destructive measure; maybe Pence will come up with a way to include it in his threatened national level RFRA due to the birth control/abortion connection to health issues.

    Recently, I read somewhere that a basic description of Buddhism is “cause and effect”. No idea if that is even close but; dismantling Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare may cause an effect across this country that the Republicans are not expecting from those of us they now believe they have whipped into submission. I’m not sure exactly what the effect may be but for some reason the French Revolution came to mind and the infamous quote, “Let them eat cake.”. Trump & Co. may have paraphrased that to “Let them heal themselves.” There are more weapons than guns to fight a revolution; now is the time for us to begin seeking the means to develop a different effect to their cause than they expect.

    The Democratic party must be strengthened, we must find a way to develop connections between all organizations struggling to maintain democracy and work together. I said before we must seek support from thinking, intelligent Republicans within Congress; which takes me back to President Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope”, which I still maintain belief in and believe he hasn’t lost that hope and will fight with us.

  2. I think their ideology has nothing to do with moral or religious values. It only has to do with short term financial gain wrapped in moral and religious utterances. In other words – GREED.

  3. First we need a campaign to make the word taxes more palatable to Americans. We want what we want, but we don’t want to pay for it. If we went back to the tax rate we had in place when America was presumably great, our top tax rate, in a graduated system, would be 90%. If that system were still in place, we would have the money for universal health care, infrastructure, and good public schools. Our deficits would be insignificant.

    We are about to see the beginning of the dismantling of the 20th century. This is the Koch brothers’ dreams come true, an American dystopia.

  4. But just look at how our stock market has risen to new highs daily since the election of Trump! Isn’t that a good thing? Oh wait…….I almost forgot – it’s only good for the wealthy who have enough money to invest and profit from it.

  5. It’s interesting to note that programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were enacted with a significant amount of Republican support in Congress (and some opposition from congressional Democrats), as well as the support of a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon. That was before the right-wing ideologues like Koch, Scaife, et al. began funding the think tanks to shift opinion on the social safety net.

  6. We have a perfect laboratory experiment dealing with the Republican ideology in Kansas. Sam Brownback and his Republican-dominated legislature have destroyed the state’s economy and its school systems by implementing every cockamamie idea on the Republican list. They even went so far as to try to vote out of office a few Supreme Court justices who ordered the legislature to obey the state’s constitution regarding school funding. That effort was unsuccessful, fortunately, but the state has two more years of Brownback in office to do as much damage as he can.

  7. All we have to do is look at Flint Michigan. The Republicans thought they would save money. Instead they have created a costly public health crisis with lead poisoning that far exceeds the money they thought they would save. Conservatives don’t understand that it’s important to invest in systems that actually will support our economy and save money. Nurses now have to prove that cutting staff will actually cost the hospital more money with CEO’s who care more about the bottom line than the safety of patients. They don’t understand that investing in quality care be ensuring adequate staffing actually saves money. More importantly it reduces nasty unpleasant complications in the recovery process of patients and can save a life.

  8. Nancy, it isn’t just the wealthy who have money in the stock market. Many pensioners and young people trying to build a retirement fund are also in the stock market. IMO the recent rise in the market reflects an optimism for the future of business. We are watching a bubble in the making. How long it goes on will determine Trump’s ability to fulfill his promises. Four years of these
    kinds of gains? I don’t think so.

    What made the Obama economic recovery so successful was that it was slow, steady and deep. Trump has given the country “pie in the sky”.

  9. All good points above. The question is when and how do Democrats start using this wealth of evidence and ammunition against the Republicans? I’m not hearing much from the Democrat congressional delegates; certainly not from the IN democrats, who are apparently dead or maybe just brain dead.

    There has to be a new dialogue that calls out the Republicans for what they have become and who they serve. The only thing I can think might be preventing the Democrats from speaking up is they serve the same masters as the Republicans.

  10. Andre’ Carson has been on CNN in recent days speaking out against Trump’s conflict of interest problems. Carson serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

  11. But you see, they have gates and guards around THEIR houses. And now they have the greatest and most intrusive surveillance system the world has ever known, and of course anyone considered a “terrorist” has no rights, not even to life, not even if they are American citizens. And the victims, errr, citizens voted for it all because they were scared of the Other.

    Which reminds me what fascism really is. Look out, ’cause Mitchie and Pauly and Donnie are waiting around the corner for your lunch money. And they know you are coming, and they will beat the snot out of you if you resist. Because they are just our neighborhood bullies. Whuddaya going to do about it?

  12. JoAnn, Alphons, and Peggy,

    It looks like we’re all moving toward the same page called: political reality.

    Our thinking needs to start over. Let’s go back to the 60’s and correct our mistakes before it’s too late. The biggest one was systemic. The following is from “Divided Minds” by Carol Polsgrove (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001) pp. 223-224 [Carol was a professor of journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington]:

    “By summer’s end [1964], Jim Silver, Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Coles–engaged intellectuals all–had left the South. That fall Alfred A. Knopf published Zinn’s “The Southern Mystique.” In it Zinn put forth a thesis that directly countered [Jim]Silver’s point in the “Closed Society.” Silver [who had grown up in the Deep South] had described Mississippi as set apart from the national will–so set apart that the nation would have to force change on it. Zinn argued that the South was not so special [Zinn grew up in Brooklyn], so different. Americans ought to shrug off the idea of a “Southern Mystique.” The South only exaggerated some of the characteristics of the nation, including racism. The South was “a distorted mirror image of the North.” The southern mystique–the idea that white southerners were innately violent or xenophobic –was only an excuse for inaction. The truth was that “compromise and vacillation on the race question are intrinsic parts of our national political heritage.” If national leaders failed to act now, they followed a long tradition: “The Negro has always been a hitchhiker in American history.”

    “Reviewing “The Southern Mystique” for the New York Herald Tribune’s Book Week, Ralph Ellison remarked on Zinn’s optimism about executive action. Zinn was “far too charitable toward politicians’ motives,” Ellison said. In his first long political piece since he took on Irving Howe, Ellison disagreed with Zinn on several other counts. For all the myths and mysteries around it, the southern mystique was real. It worked its will through “actions, the goal of which is the manipulation of power.” Southern politicians [as well as Donald Trump] knew how to use the mystique, their inheritance from the past, to hold on to their power. Zinn paid too much attention to psychological theories that ignored the past, which had made the present culture what it was. The movement itself came out of the past. The Brown decision had not transformed Negroes from obsequious “Sambos” into political actors. Negroes had been preparing themselves for freedom all along.”

    “Yet, unable as Zinn was still to see Negroes complexity, Ellison admired his willingness to go south to live in a Negro community and become part of the change that was happening there. In his effort to understand both what WAS happening and what COULD happen–“to forge for himself at least, a fresh concept of man”–Zinn stood apart from other individuals. His was “an act of intellectual responsibility in an area that had been cast outside the range of intellectual scrutiny through our timidity of mind in the face of Amercan cultural diversity.” Ellison sympathized with Zinn’s ‘attempt to do pragmatically what our best critical minds have failed even to recognize as important.'”

    We have no chance to match up with Trump/Pence in the next few weeks unless we develop an EFFECTIVE SYSTEMIC MINDSET, one set apart from both Howard Zinn and the likes of a Morris Dees who “doesn’t get involved in systems.”

  13. We are going to spend the money one way or another, either through European-style social services or via prisons, crime, vocational under-education etc., so it’s not just money that is at stake. It’s ideology, but ultimately about money from the Republican point of view since they cling to the idea that if you don’t help those in need that they will somehow get jobs and not be a drag on taxpayers, ignoring the fact that our (vocationally) under-educated workforce is competing with cheap labor overseas and automation at home). This is circuitous logic at its best.
    Of course, Koch-led moralizing politicians see an additional bonus with such thinking as such thinking morphed into policy means that there is more money to distribute to their rich political contributors, speaking of circuitry. Result? A Dow soon to eclipse 20,000, less bank regulation leading to reckless investment practices, a final gutting of Dodd-Frank, and declining demand in the marketplace leading to (dare I say the word?) deflation due to worsening wage inequality. Recession (or worse), anyone?

  14. If you are a capitalist you live off the backs of cheap labor. What creates that? Maximum supply plus minimum demand for it.

    So the Republican economic vision of widespread poverty with no “safety net” creates the perfect, if temporary, capitalist world. Low taxes, cheap labor.

    Why temporary? Poor consumers and tax payers are the ultimate result. Widespread economic failure.

    But like climate change denial and infrastructure avoidance and compromised education and health care that’s for future taxpayers to worry about.

    Welcome to 2016’s American corporate playground.

  15. When these idealogues don’t accept or understand the scientific process they convince themselves that data based evidence is “just someone else’s” opinion and reject it offhand. As Mark Twain said “It is easier to fool someone than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.”

  16. What disturbs me the most is all the Grand Plans by the GOP attacking Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, ACA, etc., and not whimper so far from the Democrats. Where is Andre Carson or Joe Donnelly??? This would also impact the elected state and local officials at some point. Silence no push back that I have read or heard from Democrats.

    The Republicans are like pit bulls once they sat their minds to something they are very organized and will have the Wall Street Vampires waiting in the wings. They will have some sort of slick sloganeering campaign to appeal at different levels – Greed is a good start.

  17. Pete; your last sentence says what I have been secretly thinking…and hoping is going on. If whatever MIGHT be going on behind the scenes could fail; it is wise not to get our hopes up, only to be knocked flat again.

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