With the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia last week, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that, despite all the fulminations of conservatives about shrinking government, it’s damn hard to actually shrink the safety net because, well–people like it!
James Hohmann of the Washington Post noted after the VA expansion: “It’s another nail in the coffin for efforts to repeal Obamacare and a fresh reminder of how difficult it is to scale back any entitlement once it’s created. Many Republicans, in purple and red states alike, concluded that Congress is unlikely to get rid of the law, so they’ve become less willing to take political heat for leaving billions in federal money on the table.”
Noah Smith of Bloomberg has a bigger picture piece on positive trends in the social safety net, which I think many people on the left are not cognizant of or downplay:
U.S. government transfers have been increasing over time. The U.S. system of taxation and spending has become more progressive during the past two decades. Per-capita government transfers were about $8,567 a person in 2016, up from about $5,371 at the turn of the century (adjusted for inflation) — an increase of 60 percent.
The increasing generosity of the U.S. safety net in the 21st century began under President George W. Bush. Although mostly remembered for the war in Iraq, Bush in many ways fulfilled his promise to be a compassionate conservative. Major expansions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, were carried out in 2002 and 2008. Bush’s Medicare reform added prescription-drug benefits to the government’s premier health-care program. And Bush’s so-called housing-first policy reduced homelessness dramatically during his second term. Overall, real per-capita government transfers increased by about 38 percent during the eight years of the Bush administration.
Under President Barack Obama the pace of welfare expansion slowed a bit, probably as a result of the Great Recession. But it didn’t stop. Food stamps continued to expand, extended unemployment insurance helped many during the recession, and homelessness kept declining. Obama also implemented a number of tax credits for low-income families and passed the Affordable Care Act, which subsidizes health insurance.
After 16 years of expansions in the safety net under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, the U.S. has a much more robust welfare state than people seem to realize. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using the U.S. Census Bureau’s new comprehensive poverty measure, estimates that government transfers have driven child poverty to a record low. Thanks mostly to government aid, the number of American children in poverty has fallen from more than one in four in the early 1990s to about one in seven today.
Furthermore, I expect safety net and other needed government programs to expand further in the future. Consider:
In all advanced societies, the state, as measured by spending as a share of GDP over time, has grown larger over time, albeit in an irregular rather than steady pattern. But the end result is clear. In the US, for example, government spending was only 7 percent of GDP at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, it is around 37 percent. Of course, the percentage is higher in most other industrialized countries, reaching around 60 percent in the prosperous Nordic countries of Denmark and Sweden. Indeed, the US could add 10 percentage points to the GDP share of government spending and still be only in the middle of the pack of today’s advanced countries.
Such a development might strike some as radically infeasible because Americans famously are not fond of big government and, depending on how survey questions are asked, declare their lack of interest in a general expansion of government’s role. But such a view misunderstands the dominant ideology in America, which combines what political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson refer to as “symbolic conservatism” (honoring tradition, distrusting novelty, embracing the conservative label) with “operational liberalism” (wanting government to do more and spend more in a wide variety of areas).
In their definitive book, Ideology in America, they characterize symbolic conservatism as “fundamentally different from culturally conservative politics as defined by the religious right. It is respect for basic values: hard work, striving, caution, prudence, family, tradition, God, citizenship and the American flag….[I]t is the mainstream culture….It is woven into the fabric of how ordinary Americans live their lives.”
And on operational liberalism they note, “Social Security is…no exception. Most Americans like most government programs. Most of the time, on average, we want government to do more and spend more. It is no accident we have created the programs of the welfare state. They were created—and are sustained—by massive public support.”
So there would appear to be no insuperable ideological obstacle to a substantially expanded role for government in 21st century America. Indeed, such an expansion is fully in accord with Americans’ durable commitment to operational liberalism.
Of course these expanded government programs will not happen all at once. Far from it. Like the programs of the past, they will be phased in gradually over time, in fits and starts, frequently in inefficient and suboptimal forms. That’s the messy business of politics in a democracy.
But happen they will and once enacted they will be hard to get rid of; instead, just as in the past, the programs will be modified, improved and even expanded. The reason is simple: people like programs that make their lives better and are far more likely to respond to program defects by demanding they be fixed than by demanding programs be eliminated.