Editorial September 20, 2013

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

Food stamps: a resource with which poor people can get food they can’t afford to buy or a weight on taxpayers due to recipients’ unwillingness to work for that food? Such are the extreme views of the federal food stamp program known as SNAP. But there is a third definition that seems much more in line with the image Americans have of themselves and their country. That third definition is that food stamps are a countercyclical economic stabilizer which, despite its haughty vocabulary, actually does a better job of defining America and, at least, keeps people fed while the economy finds its way back to providing them the opportunity to earn and buy their own food.

The economy runs in cycles no matter what fiscal programs are attempted to resolve negative economics, in fact, those economic resolutions are the result of an economic cycle changing the parameters of the federal budget. Because of that there is a need for economic balance in any country or any income disparity or a clearer dividing line between rich and poor will develop. And from there things tend to get worse if we want to consider, for example, an extreme response to income disparity-the French Revolution. In America it is not likely that the masses will hang or behead the rich. They might admire the rich for their resources, dislike them for having resources others do not have, or even wonder how they might become rich. But at the end of the day there is still hunger and hunger, which some conclude is a prime motivator for anyone wanting not to be hungry, is a debilitator to those who simply can’t find the work sufficient to put food on the table.  For them it is just hunger, a frustration with only one unreachable solution, food.

Economic cycles come and go and during the downturns people go hungry for reasons beyond their control: they did not create the downturn, they did not create the absence of jobs, they may not be able to work due to age or health reasons, so they have no recourse but to take a handout from the government.  Enter countercyclical economic stabilizers that do what the words suggest; counter the economic cycle downturn with programs that stabilize the impact of the economics on the low income levels. Such a policy did not develop recently out of thin air. It is historically the economically prudent response to a growing number of people who cannot earn enough money to buy food for themselves or their children.

These policies are ingrained in our budget and cultures because that is what America is…or has been; a country that makes the promise that hard work brings affluence. Unfortunately that promise is not always kept due to errors in policies, legislation or tax breaks that favor one economic class at the expense of others, and economic cycles that bear down on the lower income populations while rewarding the rich.

Recently we have heard the political arguments in favor of cutting food stamps. That view must be the result of the belief that those who qualify for nutrition benefits would be out there working, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, if they didn’t have the safety net food stamps and other programs offer. Essentially, they are not looking for work because they do not have to. Are there individuals who game the system? Always has been, always will but that behavior is not one on which cuts in food stamps should be based. The argument is an old one going back to the late 60’s when the same argument was made but analysis of the situation then showed that welfare fraud in general was around 1% of the money spent.

Years back a homeless advocate asked President Reagan what he intended to do for the homeless. Reagan responded with the question, ‘what are you doing about them?’ Reagan’s message could not have been clearer: America offers the opportunity to those who want to work hard to improve their lot. Hard work, not handouts, made this country strong. . It was a classic Reagan response; true and not true at the same time, depending on how you look at things. Hard work should pay off but not when the cost of living rises faster than wages. At that point the need for a second low-paying job is necessary. If that doesn’t raise someone’s quality of life then it becomes servitude; looking at a future of working harder and harder while quality of life remains the same or lessens.  Not exactly the promise Reagan touted.

Invoking Reagan in this discussion is relevant because Congress’  austerity movements, particularly those that only impact low income people, began with Reagan cutting benefits and taxes at the same time. The logic would be if you are spending less you need less tax revenue and that tax savings for the wealthy allows them to invest and create jobs, but that only works when the economic cycle inspires investment which did not happen on the scale Reagan anticipated. Clinton and Gingrich got it right by a combination of cuts (Welfare to Work) and tax increases that sent us to a surplus in 1999. But those same old cut and spend strategies resurfaced during President George W Bush’s administration with the same results: a greater divide in incomes, a massive public debt due to cuts in revenues (taxes) and a staggering economy that is staggering to some degree because a larger and larger segment of the economy are lower income and cannot participate.

You would think by now that Congress would have figured this out but this week House Republicans introduced the HR 3012 that would cut SNAP funding while continuing to insist on not raising taxes. Cutting spending and revenues equals smaller government. Okay, but if smaller government means people going hungry in a country that prides itself on producing food, not okay.

In Washington, Ideology Need Not Reign Supreme

                    By Lee H. Hamilton

 

“There may be dysfunction in Washington, but the system can still work”

Hamilton

Hamilton

The roots of Congress’s dysfunction are complex. But the fundamental reason is that real differences in ideology and principles about both government and governance exist among the voters. At heart, the reason it’s become so hard for Washington to act is that the two parties are being driven by fundamentally incompatible views.

Conservatives place a heavy emphasis on liberty, individual freedom, and self-reliance. They have little confidence in government’s ability to play a role in improving society or the economy, and many of them look upon government as destructive, a force that undermines our basic freedom. They are fearful of centralized power, opposed to redistribution of any kind, and opposed to new government programs — or even to improving existing government programs they’d rather see cut. They reject entirely the notion of raising taxes or imposing new regulations on the private sector.

Moreover, a belief has taken hold among some conservatives in recent years that compromise and accommodation are betrayals of their cause. This has put great pressure on GOP leaders not to budge in their negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats.

Meanwhile, on the “progressive” side — a label that has come to supplant “liberal,” in part because Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s were so effective at demonizing liberals — there is much greater emphasis on using government to narrow economic disparities and help those at the bottom of the income scale. They emphasize its role in providing equality of opportunity for all and individuals’ responsibility to the community around them. Because they have more confidence in government as a constructive force, they have no trouble with the notion of expanding government’s scope to improve Americans’ lives.

In fact, unlike conservatives, they think government can expand freedom when it’s properly applied, by reining in the power of monied interests. While they do not favor a radical centralization of power in the federal government, as some conservatives charge, they are more willing to accept government action — and the legislative compromises that make it possible. Because they have less confidence in the market to solve all problems, they support both the taxes they believe necessary to run programs they like, and regulations to limit the private sector’s more predatory impacts on the environment or society.

The gap between these views appears unbridgeable. It is not, nor are the differences between the two sides as wide as they appear.

That is because most Americans find themselves somewhere between the extremes, able to see merit in both conservative and progressive ideas. When I was in office, I often found myself thinking that many of my constituents were conservative, moderate, and liberal all at the same time. That hasn’t changed. As a whole, Americans do not want excessive government or heavy-handed bureaucracy, but they do want programs that help them, like Social Security and Medicare. They are dedicated to both individual freedom and opportunity and to community obligation, and they don’t see them as mutually contradictory. More than anything else, especially these days, they want to see moderation and cooperation from their political leaders.

There may be dysfunction in Washington, but the system can still work. When policy makers gather (I’ve seen this countless times) ideology fades, pragmatism rises, and the question becomes, What can we do to fix the situation? That’s where most Americans find themselves. They do not see government as evil, though they are often disappointed in its practice and its practitioners. They are wary of excessive government, but again and again they turn to government at some level to help solve the problems they complain about, and they want it to work effectively and efficiently.

In the end, Congress usually ends up about where most Americans are and want it to be. So I’m not surprised to find how, when dire problems confront them, both conservatives and progressives in Washington find their inner pragmatist.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.