Shredding the Safety-Net, Again

I’ll have to admit, following stories about the war on women has occupied much of my time of late; so much so that I’ve paid less attention to the accelerating war on the poor. Not being given to conspiracy theories, I’ll refrain from suggesting that this might be part of the point of the big “WoW,” to distract us from what they’re doing to the bottom portion of the 99 percent so that they can give even more tax breaks to the top 1 percent. Of course, women are justifiably alarmed by the recent upsurge in misogynistic rhetoric and action. While we raise our voices against the most neanderthal officials and pundits, let's also raise a stink about the ongoing war on the poor (and speak up about how they are related).

The most recent salvo in the war on the poor comes from Paul Ryan, Chair of the House Budget Committee. While Romney claims he’s not worried about the poor, because, after all, we’ve got a safety-net in this country, Paul Ryan claims to be very, very concerned about the poor. He thinks the social safety-net has weakened their moral fiber. This came up during discussions of his budget proposal, which dismantles what’s left of the safety-net while granting larger tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals. Ryan would cut spending on welfare, food stamps, public pension plans, public health and other such programs by $5.3 trillion. He would make cuts that effectively dismantle health care reform (which he claims adds to the problem of dependence on government), which means, among other things, people with pre-existing conditions will once again have the ‘right’ to lose their insurance.

To make sure the poor are no longer coddled by Medicaid, he would cut it by $770 trillion. As for students who want to go to college, he will liberate them (and give them more backbone) by slashing all forms of federal aid. And for unemployed workers who want to learn new skills, he would show them tough love by cutting funds for training programs.

Because, in Ryan-logic, these programs are demeaning. Here’s what he said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute: A generous safety net “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives.”

So what’s the answer, Paul? Reduce the top individual and corporate tax rates to 25 percent, giving the wealthiest Americans an average tax cut of at least $150,000 a year. Because, they know how to use it; when government gets out of the way, they create jobs and investments. (Never mind that it has not been working that way for the past 40 years; have we learned nothing from the great recession)?

If I were trying to write a parody of conservative themes about programs for the poor, (most of which benefit people in the middle as well) I couldn’t do better than this. All of the key conservative themes are here: bootstrap individualism, negative role of government (when it comes to social spending) and positive role of market competition (let people sink or swim as they compete for resources). If you fail, it is all your fault. If a disproportionate number of the poor are people of color, don’t even think that structural racism may play a role (and if you say it does, you are a racist). It is the clearest articulation of social Darwinism I’ve seen in a long time.

The war on women and the war on the poor both hark back to times when social Darwinist ideas prevailed, and shaped public policy. Birth control was illegal and the safety-net was non-existent. Life was good, right? I guess we can thank Paul Ryan for reminding us that such ideas are once again mainstream, at least for conservative members of Congress, who have an outsized role in shaping legislation today.

Consider the (mostly) bipartisan JOBS bill, a boondoggle for Wall Street, masquerading as something for small businesses and start-up companies. JOBS, which stands for “Jump-start Our Business Start-ups” is an attempt to make it look like Congress is doing something for the economy; both parties were eager to pass something, anything. But in this climate, the best they can do is something that actually strengthens Wall Street’s hand, while further weakening the SEC’s oversight. According to the New York Times, the bill allows companies with up to $1 billion in annual revenue to ignore, for their first five years as a public company, regulations that were put in place after the dot-com bubble and the collapse of Enron. These include requirements to hire an outside independent auditor to attest to a company’s internal financial controls, and restrictions on how financial analysts interact with investment bankers in promoting a company’s stock. The bill enables a new way to sell shares, called ‘crowd-funding,’ which allows companies to solicit investments through the Internet to raise up to $1 million annually without registering their shares for public trading with the SEC. This significantly increases opportunities to defraud investors. The SEC has opposed the bill.

Given that lax reporting on the part of financial institutions has been a major factor in the recent collapse of financial markets, you’d think Congress would steer clear of legislation that encourages more of the same kind of recklessness. But no, in a time of social Darwinism, the so-called ‘job-creators’ get more perks, and more license to cheat small investors, while the poor get kicked to the curb. Could it be any clearer that the current Congress serves the 1 percent?