Scrapping America’s Bootstraps

Tiffany Williams

The deal is done. It features billions in cuts over the next decade, and the threat of more cuts if the bipartisan “Super Congress” fails to agree on a way to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion.

While discretionary spending cuts and caps aren’t new ways to shrink the deficit, relying on budget cuts without any revenue increases would hammer our economy. Yet, House Speaker John Boehner practically swore that he would do everything within his power to prevent the bipartisan committee from raising taxes in order to create a balanced package.

The safety net is being trimmed in this first phase, not shredded, according to the Coalition on Human Needs. But that’s just for now. The parameters (real or perceived) of the Super Congress, combined with the “cut, cut, cut” mentality of the tea party and the GOP, mean that social entitlement programs will inevitably be on the table for negotiations.

In the age of spin and rhetoric, it’s important to review what the phrase “entitlement programs” really means. Simply put, they include many of the basic programs that have raised the U.S. standard of living since the FDR administration and before. Draconian cuts to these programs will destroy decades of progress on human needs.

Some entitlement programs are essential for youth and children. College loans, college grants, and job training, for example, help break the cycle of unemployment and poverty. Head Start, subsidized school meals, Medicare, food stamps, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs all help prevent the poorest American kids from suffering malnutrition, untreated diseases, and easily prevented educational setbacks.

Entitlements also include essential programs for elderly and disabled Americans, all of which save lives — Social Security, Medicaid, medical care for veterans, housing assistance, and energy assistance that helps pay heating and cooling bills amid (increasingly common) extreme temperatures.

The unemployment insurance program is one entitlement we need more than ever. But along with these key components of the safety net is one entitlement that needs an overhaul: federal farm subsidies. This longstanding program, which dates back to the 1930s, in many cases just enriches giant agribusinesses and landowners instead of the nation’s fast-disappearing family farmers.

Social safety net programs don’t just help the “undeserving poor,” those who supposedly put themselves in the situation of needing care by being lazy. As you read this, think about the people you know who have lost their jobs or had to take pay cuts in the recession.

With unemployment holding steady and, when it drops, only dropping because people are giving up the job search, the need for life-saving government assistance will only increase. Combine this with a rapidly aging population that will translate into more Americans requiring long-term care, and unrelenting existing threats to what used to be “untouchable” programs like Social Security and Medicare, and it doesn’t take an economist to predict where our country is headed.

The tea party and GOP are quick to justify cuts and quote Benjamin Franklin, who said famously “I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

By only cutting programs that include those that help people in need, provide a pathway out of poverty, and are proven to help people get on their feet (like the Earned Income Tax Credit, funding for college educations, and childcare — not to mention essential public investment that would create jobs), the tea party folks would simply punish the poor without “leading or driving” them anywhere but the grave.

I’m a social worker, not an economist or political expert, so my experience is on the human side of this crisis. Before I became an advocacy director at the Institute for Policy Studies, I counseled other social workers on how to de-stigmatize public benefits for clients who were reluctant to apply even when they were clearly eligible and in need. Hard as it is to believe given the way we’ve vilified the working poor over centuries, deciding to turn to public benefits to make ends meet is often a scary, humiliating moment in a person’s life, not a picnic or point of pride.

The old “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” ethos of our grandparents’ generation no longer applies. Simply finding a job and working harder or trimming expenses is increasingly impossible. Even the bootstraps themselves have been cut out of the budget.

I can’t help but compare this crisis of human need on one side, with skyrocketing CEO pay and corporate profits on the other. Relentless wars, Wall Street bailouts, and tax cuts for the richest among us aren’t up for negotiation, yet our children’s future and our parents’ lives appear to be bargaining chips.

It’s clear that our country is at a pivotal moment; the question is where we’ll draw the line.

Tiffany Williams, LGSW, is Advocacy Director of the Break The Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies.