What We Really Mean When We Talk About ‘Entitlement Reform’

What We Really Mean When We Talk About ‘Entitlement Reform’
Sam Woolley/GMG :

After passing their massive tax cuts for the wealthy—a major legislative priority for a Republican Party which will brutalize working people and send the national deficit soaring—the GOP is laying the groundwork to gut entitlements and welfare programs. (Remember folks, the deficit doesn’t matter.)

On Wednesday morning, Paul Ryan made the TV rounds giddily hawking his plan, saying, “Do we want to get entitlement reform? Of course we do.”

His intentions could hardly be clearer, but there are still people out there worried about stating this fact too openly. Earlier this month, Maya MacGuineas, president of the non-profit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, tweeted:

“Gutting,” of course, is exactly what Republicans mean when they talk about “reforming” “entitlement” programs. But MacGuineas was correct to point out the many politically loaded words partisans throw around when talking about programs that benefit poor Americans (with “reform” being high up on that list.)

Take, for example, the word “welfare.” It was once often used to reference a specific program in the United States, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which gave cash to needy families with children. AFDC no longer exists (you could say it was gutted) because of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—better known as the “welfare reform bill”—that former President Bill Clinton passed in 1996.

The bill “reformed” AFDC into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block grant program. While AFDC was not great by any means, TANF is much, much worse. In 1979, 82 out of every 100 poor families received aid from AFDC; in 2015, only 23 out of 100 poor families received that aid. This has had an especially damaging effect on the poorest families, with the number of people living in extreme poverty ($2 per person, per day) increasing from 636,000 households to 1.65 million. As Mother Jones aptly put it: “There’s very little welfare left for Trump to reform.

Today, the GOP invokes “welfare” as a purposefully vague catch-all term to describe a whole host of anti-poverty programs they want to cut, taking advantage of decades of built-up racist stigma. By keeping their rhetoric abstract, conservatives also downplay the human impact of these programs that help real people every day.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we drop a term like welfare altogether, just that there is a lot of necessary work to be done around defining and understanding loaded words. We shouldn’t let Republicans get away with using terms like “entitlement reform” when talking about cuts to Social Security. It would be more useful—and factual—to say that they are “taking away money that old people need to live.”

Since it looks like we are entering a horrible battle to keep our benefits, you’ll see these words a lot in the coming months. So here is a (non-comprehensive) reader’s guide to help you set the record straight.

The words we’ll probably be hearing a lot:

Entitlement: An entitlement program is one in which spending is mandatory, as opposed to discretionary spending, where Congress must act each year to provide funding. That means if you are eligible, you have a right to receive that benefit (think Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, Medicaid). When Paul Ryan says “entitlement reform,” it’s because he doesn’t want say the names of the popular programs that he wants to cut out loud.

Medicaid: This is our nation’s largest healthcare program, covering 74 million low-income people (21% of the population) and its expansion was arguably the biggest success of the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid has long sat on the cusp between what we think of as a “welfare program” and a “middle-class entitlement” (right now, it’s really both). Technically, Medicaid works as an entitlement, meaning that those who are eligible have a right to enroll in coverage, as opposed to something like housing vouchers, where funding is discretionary. Rolling back Medicaid would literally kill people.

Medicare: This program provides universal healthcare coverage to the elderly as well as many younger people with disabilities. Unlike Medicaid, eligibility is determined by age—65 years or older—and not income. Some 59 million people are insured through Medicare. It is one of our country’s most well-known and popular programs. Gutting it would cause many seniors to lose access to the critical care that they need.

Social Security: This universal program gives seniors the money they need to live after they stop working. Some 61 million people collect Social Security benefits and it covers 97% of the elderly. Since its inception, Social Security has dramatically cut the elderly poverty rate—in 2015, 9% of seniors were poor, compared to 40% who would have been poor without the program. (In comparison, the U.S. child poverty rate is at a very high 18% percent, something we could easily reduce.) If you want proof that we already know how to cut poverty in this country, there is no better place to look.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Commonly known as food stamps, this program gives people food vouchers, which will help some 40 million people, about half of whom are children, eat this year. Because it is one of the few programs left that is available to the very poor, it does a lot of legwork when it comes to reducing extreme poverty. While giving people cash to buy what they need would be a preferable system to a more restrictive program like food stamps, cuts to SNAP would literally take food out of people’s mouths.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF): What we traditionally think of when we think of welfare, TANF is supposed to serve the function of giving cash to needy families. However, since the 1996 welfare reform bill, TANF’s federal budget has remained at a stagnant $16 billion. Because of its block grant structure, states have flexibility to do what they want with the program, meaning some of the money is spent on things completely unrelated to cash assistance, such as programs to promote marriage. Only around 25% of TANF’s already meager funding is used to actually give money to low-income people.

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): CHIP gives health insurance to nine million children whose parents don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford other coverage. Created in 1997 by Senators Orrin Hatch, a Republican, and Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, it has long been touted as a bipartisan program—after all, who wouldn’t want needy children to have health insurance? Orrin Hatch, it turns out! Congress missed the deadline to reauthorize the program in September and the program is now close to shutting down in many states. Yet just earlier this month, after passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy, Hatch said, “The reason CHIP’s having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore.” Letting CHIP programs close across the country means that children will lose their healthcare—leaving parents to contend with impossible choices like buying groceries or medicine for their kids.

Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8): This program, which is the main form of federal housing assistance, gives low-income people vouchers to help subsidize their housing costs in the private market. Some 2.2 million families—mainly those with children, the elderly, and the disabled—use these vouchers to help keep a roof over their heads. Yet because of lack of funding, three in four eligible families don’t get assistance. Gutting the program would likely put even more people out on the street.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): The EITC gives low-income people cash back once a year when they file their taxes. In 2015, over 26 million people received the EITC, and in combination with the Child Tax Credit, the program pulled 6.5 million people out of poverty. (The GOP tax bill now requires undocumented immigrants to provide a Social Security number to claim the Child Tax Credit—effectively barring them from receiving the benefit—which will impact one million undocumented children.) While the EITC does a lot of good, it has some big limitations. First off, it only comes in once a year, which makes it extremely difficult to use for daily expenses. And because the credit phases in based on earnings, poorer people don’t get the full benefit amount. A much better way to distribute money to parents raising children (an insanely expensive task) would be child allowances, a program that almost every other industrialized country in the world has, which gives parents cash for each child on a weekly or monthly basis.

The bad words (folks, don’t use ‘em):

Reform: The word “reform” is most often used when politicians are trying to make something worse, usually by cutting programs that benefit poor people. Today’s battle over “tax reform” means cutting taxes for the wealthy and raising taxes on the poor. In 1996, “welfare reform” meant gutting cash assistance in the name of the racist idea that impoverished single black mothers were bilking the system. And in the coming months, “entitlement reform” will mean cutting spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, and Medicaid.

Personal responsibility: This term has been used to justify cuts to government programs—not just in the U.S., but in countries across Europe, from Britain to France (“responsabilité individuelle”) and Poland (“odpowiedzialność osobista”). In America, conservatives and liberals alike have wielded this term as a rhetorical cudgel against poor people of color—remember, the welfare reform bill was literally called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.”

Welfare to work: This is one of Paul Ryan’s favorite catch phrases. It makes no sense because most poor people who can work, do. The problem isn’t lack of work ethic, it’s the systematic hoarding of capital and resources by the rich.

The good words:

Paul Ryan retire bitch: This is OK to say.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin