Why Did They Call it “The Great Society”?

Because “The Sucky, Dependent, Unaffordable Society” didn’t have the cachet:

Recently, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, testified before the House Budget Committee on the growth of the 10-largest “means tested” federal programs that serve people who qualify by various definitions of poverty. Here’s what Haskins reported: From 1980 to 2011, annual spending on these programs grew from $126 billion to $626 billion (all figures in inflation-adjusted “2011 dollars”); dividing this by the number of people below the government poverty line, spending went from $4,300 per poor person in 1980 to $13,000 in 2011. In 1962, spending per person in poverty was $516.

Haskins’s list includes Medicaid, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), the earned-income tax credit (a wage subsidy for some low-income workers), and Pell Grants. There are other, smaller programs dedicated to the poor. A report from the Congressional Research Service estimated the total number at 83; Haskins puts the additional spending on programs below the 10 largest at about $210 billion. The total of all programs for the poor exceeds $800 billion.

To be sure, some spending reflects the effects of the Great Recession. But most doesn’t. As Haskins shows, spending on the poor has increased steadily for decades. Consider food stamps. There are now about 45 million Americans receiving an average of $287 a month in food stamps, up from 26 million in 2007, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report. But the number in 2007, when the economy was healthy, was roughly 50 percent higher than in 2001.

So, welfare spending increases when times are bad and increases when times are good. It only increases, never decreases, never goes away. It increases when fraud is rampant, it increases when the deficit yawns like an alpine chasm, it increases when independent studies show that reckless spending without consequences leads only to further reckless spending without consequences.

And buys votes. Oh yeah, now I get it.

And programs for the poor pale beside middle-class transfers. The giants here are Social Security at $725 billion in 2011 and Medicare at $560 billion. Combine all this spending — programs for the poor, Social Security and Medicare — and the total is nearly $2.1 trillion. That was about 60 percent of 2011 non-interest federal spending of $3.4 trillion.

You can debate whether all this spending is too much or too little. My point is different: These numbers speak volumes about our politics.

The larger lesson is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, American politics have not become insensitive to the “the people.” In many ways, just the opposite is true. Politicians are too responsive to popular will. The real Washington is in the business of pleasing as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are now vast constituencies dependent on the largesse of the federal government. This is the main cause of huge “structural” budget deficits, meaning that they aren’t simply a hangover from the Great Recession.

Political leaders don’t lead. They take the path of least resistance, which has been to do little except to find scapegoats — “the rich,” “special interests,” “liberals,” “conservatives” — that arouse their supporters’ angriest antagonisms. It helps explain polarization. This is really what Washington does. It’s a demoralizing commentary on the state of American democracy.

Whenever we get to such a point of demoralization, I just recall the Carter years. There has never been anything worse in my life. Sure, the Vietnam protests were a bid deal, but nothing like the National Malaise Carter’s administration inflicted on the country for four years. That to Reagan, and a decade of revitalization (after a rather harsh recession).

As we and others never tire of pointing out, Obama is another Carter.

1 Comment »

  1. Buck O'Fama said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    I dunno, the Obama years are starting to make the Carter years look like the good ole days.

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