Speaking at the Right To Rise: Education as America’s 21st Century Ticket to Social Mobility event on October 18, Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, told the audience that conservatives need to stop their attacks on government programs that help the very poorest survive.
He told moderator Jeb Bush:
One of the things, in my view, that we get wrong in the free enterprise movement is this war against the social safety net, which is just insane. The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society. And we somehow want to zero out food stamps or something, it’s nuts to want to be doing something like that. We have to declare peace on the safety net.
Brooks describes talking to the very needy — homeless people, drug addicts, and ex-felons — and asking them, “What do you need?” He says that to improve their situations, they answer they need three things: transformation (on a cultural level), relief, and opportunity, “in that order.” But he went on to say, “Relief really matters.”
His fellow conservatives in Congress may not agree, however. Republicans have been pushing deep spending cuts that impact social safety net programs since 2010, mostly getting their way. Sequestration, which has hampered programs that help the vulnerable such as heating assistance in winter, housing vouchers, homelessness services, and unemployment benefits, was at first equally undesirable for Democrats and Republicans, with the latter trying to pin the blame on President Obama. But Republicans have since reversed course and are claiming the steep automatic cuts as a victory.
The latest battle is over food stamps, with Republicans in the House pushing a $40 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next decade that could kick as many as 6 million people off of the rolls. That cut comes on top of an automatic drop in benefits on Friday that will reduce the average benefit to $1.40 per person per meal, impacting 900,000 veterans and millions of children, people with disabilities, and the elderly.
Meanwhile, at the state level many Republican lawmakers have been erecting barriers between those who need assistance and getting on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, formerly known as welfare. At least eight states require applicants to be drug tested. The value of those benefits has also eroded to the point where they are worth less than in 1996.