Liberals Need to Make the Case For Government Programs That Work

Over the years Republicans have formulated a lot of arguments for dismantling the social safety net. The big picture strategy has always been to suggest that we can’t afford it and point to the federal deficit (until it comes time to pay for their own favorite programs like military spending and/or tax cuts). Ever since the Cold War, the safety net has been characterized as a slippery slope to socialism.

The marriage of right-wing Christians to the Republican Party has birthed some of the most bizarre rationalizations. Take a recent one from Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who misused a Bible verse to say that poor people don’t really want health care, or Rick Santorum’s suggestion that suffering isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a Biblical perspective.

But perhaps the most effective and enduring argument Republicans have used against government programs to help those who have fallen on hard times is the one about how they benefit “those people” who are undeserving and create a culture of dependence. When that is not overtly stated, it is implied. For example, we’ve seen everything from Reagan’s “welfare queens” to Romney’s talk of people who only want “free stuff” to the occasional comparison like this one from a Republican Senate candidate in 2014:

Dr. Annette Bosworth posted an image to her campaign Facebook page Monday, which compares the National Park Service’s policy of discouraging feeding wild animals to the food stamp “hand out program” to provide a “lesson in irony.”

“The food stamp program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” text on the image reads. “They proudly report that they distribute free meals and food stamps to over 46 million people on an annual basis.”

“Meanwhile, the National Park Service, run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us, ‘Please do not feed the animals,’” the text continues. “Their stated reason for this being that… ‘The animals will grow dependent on the handouts, and then they will never learn to take care of themselves.”

All of that is what makes a recent article by Neil Irwin so significant.

Certain social welfare policies, according to an emerging body of research, may actually encourage more people to work and enable them to do so more productively.

Irwin goes on to discuss the growing body of evidence that suggests that programs like the earned income tax credit, child care subsidies, food stamps and high-quality childhood education “enable more people to work, and to work in higher-productivity, higher-income jobs. The end result, if the research is correct, is the same: a nation that is capable of growing faster and producing more.” In other words, many elements of the safety net that have been so derided by Republicans are actually good for both individuals and the economy.

Of course, that doesn’t obviate the importance of the moral argument.

…many elements of the social safety net are justifiable purely on moral grounds, regardless of whether they increase or decrease the labor supply. The entire range of programs that benefit older adults are in place because society has judged taking care of this group to be the right thing to do, not because it might increase the nonagenarian labor force.

The research Irwin cites should inspire liberals to get off their heels in terms of making defensive arguments or bemoaning the short-comings of these programs. There is an urgent need to counteract the Republican narrative with a forceful argument in favor of government programs that work. Fact-based evidence, and a moral imperative, back up those claims.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.