Reagan’s Long Shadow

With Build Back Better, President Biden has attempted to revive a New Deal ethic that entwines human and physical infrastructure. No one likes taxes, but building a nation where Americans know that their families are safe and cared for is popular across party lines. It shouldn’t have been a hard sell.

But here we are. The reconciliation package has shrunk to about $2 trillion. And something else is gone: a chance to change the American narrative of what good government does. The legislation was once billed as a plan for sweeping once-in-a-generation social change, but aspects of it that warranted that hyperbole, like dental and vision coverage for Medicare recipients and free community college, have disappeared. Paid family and medical leave have been sharply reduced.

Other industrialized nations provide a far more robust safety net than the one we have and even the one Mr. Biden proposed. Yet Republicans and at least one Democrat insist that such social welfare spending endangers the nation’s fiscal and moral health.

How did we get to a point that doing less for Americans is a virtue, and comprehensive social welfare a privilege?

It goes back to Jan. 20, 1981. On that cold, windy day, Ronald Reagan, who had scoffed at mythical female welfare cheats on the campaign trail, a trope he had revisited since his 1966 campaign for governor of California, took the oath of office. The defeated Democratic President Jimmy Carter, also on the dais, shared some of Mr. Reagan’s distaste for social spending. During his presidency, Mr. Carter charged Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano Jr. with creating “pro-work and pro-family” rules for recipients (though they never went through).

Mr. Reagan went further. In his inaugural speech, he linked government itself to national decline. The economic crisis of the 1970s, he declared, was “proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.” Social programs were wasteful. Worse, they lured families into dependence.

In other words: The government that helps families most helps them least. It was an idea that became an American ethic, with staying power through Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Attacks on social programs portrayed poverty as a moral failure and exploited racist stereotypes to mischaracterize social welfare as a magnet for criminal, failed and indolent Americans. The belief that successful families helped themselves remained an article of faith in both parties until the socialist Senator Bernie Sanders ran for president.

Under Mr. Reagan, conservatives were finally able to begin dismantling the New Deal state and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. In 1981 and 1982, Mr. Reagan made more than $22 billion in cuts to social welfare programs, including federal student loans and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a modest program that paid businesses to train and hire economically disadvantaged people.

The federal deficit grew anyway, as Mr. Reagan cut taxes and accelerated military spending. Inheriting a national debt of about $995 billion, he nearly tripled it. But conservative activists still cheered.

In fact, Mr. Reagan’s welfare reforms just made the poor poorer. When a three-year recession hit in 1980, six million more Americans fell into poverty. By 1989, employment recovered, but a weak social safety net meant that workers were an illness or an accident away from hardship.

Democrats were complicit. In 1992, although he would try (but fail) to pass national health care, Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Looking to a second term, he later blasted big government. The bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 put mothers to work at low-wage jobs without health care benefits, linked food aid to work, established a five-year lifetime limit on benefits paid by federal money and funded sexual abstinence programs, not reproductive health. By 1999, single mothers on “workfare” had sunk deeper into poverty.

Progressive Democrats did only marginally better. In 2012, Republicans accused President Barack Obama of unwinding decades of welfare-to-work provisions, with a new system of waivers, work requirements and block grants that states had to follow. And while his Affordable Care Act passed narrowly, under pressure from both parties, he abandoned universal health care.

Today the poverty rate hovers around 11 percent, about where it was in 1973, and economic insecurity now envelops the working poor and middle class. Some economists now argue that the misery caused by decades of failure to support working families paved the way for Donald Trump’s presidency.

That may be true. Left to fend for themselves in poorly regulated markets, by default, working Americans do care for themselves — often on credit. Medical debt was recently pegged at $140 billion and student loans at over $1.7 trillion. Thirteen million workers have more than one job.

Americans work hard, but in the United States it costs money even to go to work. Child care, if parents can find it, can cost more than a mortgage payment. Elder care? Even more. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans are left uninsured.

Cutting social programs failed, yet this ethic dogs us to this day. Why? First, since the New Deal, conservatives have promoted the falsehood that universal welfare programs reward Americans for not working. Second, when Great Society programs failed to eliminate poverty, rather than make federal aid more accessible and inclusive, some liberals implicitly tied welfare to work and impliedthat the inability to make ends meet was a moral problem.

Thus Reagan-era bromides are alive and well, even in the Democratic Party, and they are undermining good-faith efforts to help a besieged middle class, too. While Senator Joe Manchin has said that he is not against paid leave, some of his comments continue to perpetuate the myth that comprehensive social welfare programs are a national moral hazard. “I cannot accept our economy or basically our society,” Senator Manchin declared as he demanded more cuts in human infrastructure, “moving towards an entitlement mentality.”

And, while the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a campaign donor to Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, supported the hard infrastructure bill, it blasted the earlier $3.5 trillion human infrastructure proposal as “an existential threat to America’s fragile economic recovery and future prosperity.” So it’s no accident that what remains in the reconciliation bill mostly pumps new funds into existing programs: a child tax credit, universal pre-K, climate spending, the Affordable Care Act and affordable housing.

These things are not insignificant. But what Mr. Biden wanted, and America required, won’t happen: a universal safety net that covers the needs of Americans as a right, not a privilege, and a revised tax structure that asks the wealthiest Americans to support the work force that made them rich.

Ten years ago, Americans were already sicker, less educated and poorer than the citizens of most other industrialized country. This year an estimated 18 million Americans said that they still could not afford a drug prescribed by their physician. Health care providers and patients juggle catastrophic expenses from Covid-19. Of the more than four million women who dropped out of the work force to care for family members during the pandemic, nearly 2 million are still missing in action.

The myths of American individualism planted and nurtured under Mr. Reagan continue to cost us dearly as a nation. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he insisted in that first inaugural.

The time is long overdue to reverse that equation.

Claire Bond Potter is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research.

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