The War on Work

Lawmakers from the House and Senate are now finalizing negotiations over this year’s budget bills.

Most of the criticism has focused on how these bills push the government’s checkbook further into the red, while delivering tax cuts to the wealthy and cutting programs for the poor. But another crucial aspect of this year’s budget battle has received little attention: the conservative efforts to slash programs that provide incentives for work, by offering poor working Americans benefits like health care and child care.

As Robert Gordon and I argued in a column last week, progressives would be better off in our budget battles if we focused on how encouraging hard work and self-reliance is no longer a conservative principle.

Many of the right’s proposed cuts — to Medicaid, food stamps, and child care, for starters — punish working Americans by undermining incentives to hold down a job, or by essentially classifying them as “too rich” to collect assistance.

Take food stamps: Some parents who have transitioned from welfare to work can still currently receive food stamps, even if their income rises above the poverty line. Many of these folks still struggle to put food on the table: consider the single mother who works full-time for less than $9 an hour, but pays so much in child care that her disposable income falls below the poverty line.

Yet under the House bill, this working mom and more than a hundred thousand other working poor Americans would be punished, cut off from food stamps altogether.

Liberals are right to point out that conservative budget policies take from the poor and give to the rich. But what is more striking, and ultimately more saddening, is that these policies betray the deepest commitment conservatives claim to honor: hard work. That’s one of the scandals in this year’s budget.

– Josh Lynn