Category Archives: Social Programs

Social Programs, Social Security and the 2015 Budget

The Real Budget for 2015 is what is discussed here – not the Paul Ryan chimera budget or that gift the Republicans want to offer the American people wherein they take back whatever of our tax monies they have not yet gotten their hands on.

The total budget for 2015 includes about 3.9 trillion in spending. This makes up about 21% of all the money spent in the United States during this budget year. Some money is for mandatory programs and some for discretionary programs. This chart sums up the spending in both areas.

This chart shows where the money for the budget items comes from:

The following chart shows our debt:

This final chart shows that tax breaks are greater than our discretionary budget. Tax breaks do not change until the tax code changes and right now we find it impossible to change the tax code because of the pledge the Republicans signed with the group Americans for Tax Reform. They did make their promise to American citizens, but I am not sure how many citizens were actually privy to the pledge. I do know that Grover Norquist threatens to see than anyone who breaks their pledge will not get reelected and he has managed to make that stick.

So our “poor” Congress people (especially the Republicans) have put themselves between that proverbial rock and a hard place. The only way they can solve the debt is to cut social programs (and they really don’t mind because, after all, they reason, the programs are making people lazy) or to raise taxes either by actually raising taxes on the wealthy or by closing tax loopholes, neither which they can only do without costing them their remunerative jobs. We can see why they are so avid to close out the Social Security Program; it is because they owe it so much money and we are the least scary people our government owes money to.

Why aren’t we angry about this? I’m thinking that most Americans do not think that there is anything effective that they can do. That’s why I am so cheered to hear the Progressives out there saying “Let’s expand Social Security”. I really believe that, whether it is a fantasy or not, it is what America needs to do until a new program is put into place – a new program that works as well as this one has but which does not ever allow the money people pay into the program to be touched, no matter how desperate things get.

By Nancy Brisson

Our Fiscal Fate – then and now


We are waiting to learn our fiscal fate. What will happen to our taxes? What will happen to “entitlements”? We have been going round and round about this for years now. I could not believe when the GOP first started talking about our safety net programs as “entitlements”. I was really astounded when they seemed ready to scrap these programs completely, It kind of came out of the blue and I will admit, it shocked me. I did not foresee this attack. Now, of course, we have been through the mill on this one. We have had the privatize discussions (vouchers). We have had the deadbeat discussions (so insulting), But I still thought it was apparent that cutting social programs is not what most Americans see as desirable. And yet these cuts are still on the table after all this time. True, cutting the CPI used to calculate Social Security cost of living raises is not the end the world, but I just did not believe that we would dun our seniors for their meager financial protections. Of course, other cuts are just as unpalatable and no one wants to see cuts that affect the poor (well, except that radical wing in the Republican Party.) Cuts have to be made somewhere. So we will wait it out to see what kind of deal can be hammered out between Congress and the President and we will hope that President Obama doesn’t get in one of his compromising moods where he gives away the store. Social Security is not broke yet. It is a solvent fund and a separate budget item. When I first heard talk of these cuts I thought that they would never happen. Here is what I said two and a half years ago:

The idea of small federal government or “federalism” which may have been appropriate in the 1770’s or even in the 1860’s is not a useful concept in the 21st century. Our population is huge compared to the population in 18th and 19th century America. Our society has become skewed in that the rules have favored the rich for so long that a few people have cornered most of the wealth. Our forefathers were elitist. They did not put too fine a point on the rights of people who did not own land.

We are experiencing a return to elitism. Those who have been financially successful want to cut the rest of us loose now that we have become a drag on the economy instead of a useful work force (cash cow). They want to end all entitlements – no Social Security-no Medicaid-no Medicare. Then they could just pocket our tax dollars in the name of jump-starting the economy.

This approach will not really satisfy anyone. Pretty soon they’ll be tripping over us on the streets, we will have massive new slums, crime rates will rise, disease rates will rise. America will not look or feel anything like America.

This is what the Tea Party wants to do. This is what the Republicans want to do. It is all about greed and the status quo (those with the dollars get to keep the dollars.)


So keep watching our politicians this week. I bet we are going there, it is just a matter of how bad it will be.

The 53% vs the 47%

When Mitt Romney tells his country club friends that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes and that they are victims because of their dependence on government is he really talking campaign strategy? Yes and no. Or that new word, nyes, nyes, nyes. It makes a certain nasty sense. Why try to sell yourself as a candidate to people if they will not vote for you? Romney says that those who pay no taxes and collect all the “entitlements” are on the gravy train and they know Republicans intend to derail the gravy train and send all their “taker” asses out on the mean streets of America to make their own way. He actually is saying that all these people have been taking a free ride from the other 53% of tax payers and that the 53% can no longer afford to pay for these “entitlements” and that they will no longer pay for them.

In a sense he is correct, although Republicans insist on counting people on Medicare and Social Security as “takers” even though we were told that these were benefits we paid for, because there is not enough money to make the programs work for much longer. Republicans are selling a much grimmer America. The people Congress once tried to subsidize and protect were the poor, the disabled, the children (especially the children). Seniors were not being cared for, they were taking care of themselves with the help of their government. Now, when money is scarce the GOP says that in order for America to remain a financially viable superpower all the “deadbeats” must be turned loose and the few people who are genuinely needy will be taken care of by not-for-profits or churches. Now we will be inundated with children who don’t have enough and America will enter some Dickensian future.
It is probably true that there are Americans who take advantage of the programs our government offers and who have no intention of going to work unless they actually have to. Do we have any idea how many people are gaming the system? The number is probably higher than the number of examples of voter fraud in this country for which we are being subjected to an elaborate system of voter ID laws. Do we have any idea of how many people have languished so long in the system that they don’t know any other way to live and who will turn into productive citizens only if the system turns them loose? I don’t think we do.
However, I also don’t think any of these things matters. I think the GOP believes that the top earners in this country are done paying for the poor, the disabled, their grandparents and any other people who want to take assistance from the government even though they pay no taxes. The billionaires feel we are hanging onto their coattails and bringing them down. They want to fix the laws in America so that the 53% do not pay for the 47%. And they do not care that seniors thought they were paying their own way because it didn’t work, the program is going broke. Gramma and Grampa better go get a job so they can pay for their health care all over again.
Most of us have some pride and do not want the 53% to take care of us. Some Americans cannot afford to let pride stand in the way of their survival. The reason this is an issue right now is our depressed economy. We need jobs and we need them soon or our government could go broke. When we had jobs that paid better than a living wage we could afford to take care of less fortunate Americans. Without jobs we can’t. But doesn’t the GOP reasoning essentially disenfranchise 47% of Americans because they say they are not paying their way. Apparently we buy the right to be a citizen by paying taxes. America never placed salary requirements on citizenship, at least not since 1776. If you can only be a citizen if you pay into the American government then what will happen to all the people who no longer qualify to be US citizens? What if jobs don’t miraculously appear when you tip everyone off the gravy train?
No matter how true the financial arguments are that are coming out of the Republican camp I cannot embrace their view of an America that is just a profitable corporation. I cannot embrace their view of an America that has no social functions. Instead of settling for an America we won’t recognize let’s have a serious discussion about a combination of cuts and tax increases that will improve the tax balance in America. But it is a sad thing when wealthy people used our government to create laws that favored wealthy Americans and then, when they cornered most of the wealth in the nation, they started to scream like little girls that people were touching their money. It is not just the people at the bottom who will bring America down, the greed at the top plays a big role also.

Income Inequality

I would say that one of the most often discussed topics lately is income inequality in America. Dozens of charts and graphs have been generated both by the Conservatives and the Liberals. I was going to include lots of these graphics in my discussion but then I realized they are all available to all of us out there on the web and that they are beside the point. All the charts and graphs show that, indeed, the money is concentrated among a small group of people and that the increase at the top has been in the range of 390-400% while the rest of us have gained little or nothing. (The stock market climbed from 11,000+ in January, 2011 to 13,000+ in March of 2012, yet my monthly pension check decreased by $5 per month.)
On April 16th of 2012 the NYT published an article by Annie Lowrey that summarized the results of a study by Piketty and Saez, 2 French economists who went through all tax and other numerical records for America from the present back to 1913. They conclude that the gap between the rich and everyone else was only this great once before and that was just before the Great Depression. Of course now everyone is arguing about whether the study is accurate or flawed.
The point of this flurry of charts and graphs is to determine how the rich got so rich. The Conservatives say it had nothing to do with skewed tax rates and tax codes and business subsidies and regulations favoring business and the wealthy. They insist that they earned their bucks through their own hard labor, they are not going to feel guilty about it, and they are not planning to pay any more money to deadbeats.
The Liberals believe that it is clear when so much money is concentrated in the pockets of so few that something in the society is out of kilter and we need to find some way to even out the distribution of money in the future. (My chart above is from a liberal media source, Mother Jones and can be found in an article called “It’s the Inequality, Stupid” along with many more charts and graphs.)
What are the chances that in times of such great divisiveness these two groups will even accept each others’ charts and graphs? It doesn’t really matter whose data tells us most about the causes of income inequality.  A society where such inequality exists and continues over a long period of time does not work and cannot survive.
We know what happens when the wealthy don’t prop up the poor. Sewers run down the centers of streets. Vermin take over towns and spread disease. The poor become ever poorer and they no longer attend schools. People live without pride and without hope. The hopelessness at the bottom drags the society down. Whole areas of towns and cities become off limits to people who are more well-off (except for those adventurous rich who like to troll the depths). This is what it used to be like. Even then churches and private groups tried to help the poor. It was not enough then and it will not be enough now.
We have populations that are exponentially larger than they were the last time these conditions pertained. The church is not nearly as powerful as it was then. Since those days we have learned that societies that want to survive and thrive must look after their most vulnerable citizens. We even thought we had found programs that would help us help ourselves in times when we were in a vulnerable position, programs that now seem at risk. It took us centuries to become so enlightened. We know it has given us and other countries that live in a similarly enlightened manner the best quality of life ever enjoyed. We have almost wiped out most contagious diseases (at least the dangerous ones). We live in an almost compulsively hygienic society with excellent plumbing and plenty of hot and cold and clean running water. It is our pride that all America citizens enjoy a lifestyle found only in nations who look after their young, their old, and their less fortunate.
You don’t even need to help support those less fortunate than yourself for reasons of charity. There are more than enough really selfish reasons to contribute a larger percentage of you wealth, whether it came from skewed financials or not, to keep the world livable. Our wealthy Americans are also our most educated Americans. They understand that there are all kinds of repercussions in a society where the wealth is concentrated at the top which make it more than smart to plow some cash back into the society in which they live. Perhaps, however, I am giving them too much credit.
This belief that they are creating a new class of people in our society who see relying on government programs as a viable way to finance an indolent lifestyle probably does have some merit. Ending all government programs and throwing everyone into the deep end of the pool is not what I or anyone else would call a plan. Putting everyone at the mercy of the private sector whose sole goal is profit for the company and the stock holders is not going to work as a plan for providing services. Too many people will not be able to afford it or will opt out. Private sector competition is not helping to keep our costs at reasonable levels, instead corporations compete to see who can profit the most without sending their customers fleeing for the hills.
If we are patient for a little while we can see how a sort of public-private mix will work. Patience is not exactly our strong suit right now. As for the freeloaders who have lost touch with the great American dream that hard work and perseverance and a dash of innovation will produce not only a living but also a sense of pride and a family legacy – wouldn’t praise, encouragement and some programs that require them to “get a life” work better than making everyone suffer for the indolence of this small (but growing) group of people who are gaming the system.

The Great Society Meets Globalization

The programs which came out of LBJ’s “Great Society” are right at the center of the differences between Democrats and Republicans today. It is possible that without our recent recessionary economy we could have side-stepped these differences, but once money became tight the issues came to the forefront. Republicans have been proponents of small government for decades and after reviewing the astounding number of programs designed and funded by the Great Society, it is easy to see why they would feel that our government had become uncomfortably “large”.  The federal government had its fingers in lots of pies, and the whole business made Republicans quite twitchy.
But it was working. The political uprisings of the sixties calmed down as people were put to work, or sent off to school, or were provided governments funds for housing, health care, and welfare funds to subsidize a more comfortable lifestyle. By the 1990’s there was a rise in the number of people who could be considered middle class. More African Americans entered the middle class than ever before, and not because of government funding, but because of real results of education, training and better jobs. Republicans say that the number of people who live in poverty has not changed, but the middle class did make some gains before the factories began their exodus and the housing market crashed and the economy went into recession. My internet explorations suggest that the middle class has lost all the ground it gained and that the same is true, although even more so, for African Americans.
We are all worried that we will not be able to afford the programs that have survived from the Great Society (many of the programs are not still in effect, some have been given to the states, but some are still being funded (Medicaid, Medicare, the expanded Social Security program). The Republicans never felt that these programs were effective or proper to begin with. They advocate changing them, cutting them or getting rid of them altogether. They feel that people have come to rely on these programs, that they are robbing people of “gumption” and making them lazy and demanding. They feel that these programs have caused the demise of the traditional family among the poor and are turning people into parasites. They also show us data that suggests that many of us do not pay any taxes and therefore a small number of affluent people who do pay taxes end up paying for these parasitic lay-abouts. What this assumes is that there are no people who are poor through no fault of their own, that there are enough jobs available to support everyone and that these types of programs cause poverty or at least prolong poverty. They suggest that we get rid of the social safety net and let the chips fall where they may. They reason that we will not be able to sustain these programs anyway given that the American economy promises to be slow for some time to come. They seem to have no qualms about recommending some kind of social experiment which involves kicking out all of the props and observing what happens.
If our economy stays as weak as it is, we probably will find ourselves changing or discontinuing these programs, but I believe that society will be the poorer for it. The world existed for centuries without organized programs to assist poor citizens. The world observed an order of rigid social classes that allowed for very little upward movement. Very few poor families moved up to the merchant class. Merchants were considered to be too crass to ever move into the upper classes, in spite of any wealth they might have. The conditions of life in poor neighborhoods were unhealthy and unsanitary. Epidemics of illness raged through the lower classes and eventually affected the wealthy no matter what precautions they took to close themselves off. Certain medical attentions are necessary to keep all the citizens in a culture safe which explains the genesis of health programs for the poor which must be paid for by someone (isn’t this worth some money from the rich?). In America we do not believe in rigid social classes. We believe in dynamic social levels that allow citizens to move up and down as their fortunes wax and wane. We also have come to see that some people are unable to move up and end up being doomed to stay poor forever if we don’t intercede. We have learned that it benefits the whole society to provide educational and training opportunities for poor people who are stuck.
Instead of asking can we afford to keep doing this, the question should be can we afford to stop? Will we be America if we stop or will we give up our American ideals? How would this new America be any different from the old nation-states or monarchies which people fled? When the distance between the fortunes at the top of a culture and the miseries at the bottom of a culture get too great conditions are ripe for revolution. We already have the best governmental format that has been dreamed up so far. We must not let things get so out of whack that we stand to lose our treasured lifestyle. Are we sure we can’t afford the programs which help society operate on a more level field? Wouldn’t all of us pay a bit more in taxes for that?
How do we get from too many regulations to no regulation? We can’t. Our memories won’t let us. How do we get from too much support for the poorest among us to no support? We won’t. We know better. How will we make our cuts and raise our revenues in a reasoned way? We must. However, given current conditions we won’t. Our ancestors lived in a climate in which the market was allowed to regulate itself. That’s where we got labor unions to protect workers from rapacious bosses and that’s where we got The Great Depression.
Even if the Republicans had not decided to take this opportunity to change the bargains we have reached as regards women’s rights, I would still hope that they lose the 2012 election. Society is not a social experiment, it represents the sum total of the lessons we have learned about human interaction throughout history. I don’t want us to voluntarily return to the dark ages.  I do not want to turn out the lights.

Mitt Romney and Our Safety Net

Mitt Romney is a Federalist, big surprise. He believes, as do all Republicans, that the Federal government is too “big”. He believes that all the things the Republicans have labeled “entitlements” should be discontinued by the Federal government. Republicans have a habit of making entitlements sound as if they are negative; as if we are destroying our initiative by taking part in these programs funded by our own money. Republicans say the monies collected should be given to the States and the States should decide how to handle our safety net, each within their own State.
These guys sound very reasonable when they say things like this and they lead us to believe our forefathers would be happy long-haired bobble-heads if these changes were made. Our forefathers would actually, I am sure, be so overwhelmed their heads might well burst, even though they were very smart guys. Our population is so much larger and our problems so much more complex, I’m not sure they would agree with the GOP even if they could wrap their brains around the issues.
When the States decide the criteria for programs on their own there is no uniformity from state to state. One state can chose to ignore Medicaid, or Social Security or perhaps all of the social programs. Another state can install a stellar set of programs, envied by all. People will start moving to the state with the great programs. What would stop them? Stern residency requirements might do the trick but if the differences were great, probably not. Services like this require some consistency which cannot be provided by the States, but must fall to the Federal government.

We pay the greater share of our taxes to the Federal government. Will we continue to pay the Federal government the bigger tax sum and trust that they will send the appropriate amounts to the States. It sure would be tempting to dip into these funds and “earmark” them for other things. Given this situation I would think we would be smarter to just pay the States directly for these programs, once given some assurances that our money would be disbursed as promised. As for the Federal government; smaller government, smaller budget.
Every day, to my ears, it sounds like our Congress thinks of our money as theirs. They act like they have lots of freedom about how to spend our money. But in this government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” the money we send to Washington is ours. We decide how we want it spent and “therein lies the rub”. We are about equally divided about what we want to do with our government and our money. And while we are undecided some of our Congress people have been happily dividing the spoils. If we have the States set up and administer our safety nets, some of us will end up with very holey nets, and some with perhaps no net at all. Even when these guys sound so terribly logical; they are not.

Do Social Programs Stifle Initiative?

Is there some wisdom to the belief that social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, Disability, Food Stamps, Welfare, and Social Security, even Unemployment Insurance, have a negative effect on things like creativity, innovation, positive risk-taking, drive, and self-reliance? This is part of the dialogue of the current version of the Republican Party and of the Tea Party.
There may be some truth to this argument, but I don’t think we should over-generalize this effect. First of all, not all people lose their initiative when they depend on society for some help in times of trouble. Many see such help as a purely temporary measure until they get back on their feet. But it is true that we can all think of examples of people who are perfectly content to cruise along in life with whatever public assistance they can get. We also know that there are people who are not averse to pretending to be in need in order to qualify for some form of social welfare. On the other hand, we all know people who are genuinely unable to participate in “the rat race” for mental or physical reasons and who could never survive without some form of social welfare. We can also be sure that there are people who would be motivated by having to fend for themselves, but who will never realize their potential as long as they can coast along on society’s dime. Because unemployment plays such havoc with someone’s self-confidence, it does seem to be true that the longer one is unemployed the harder it is to sell yourself in the job’s marketplace. I’m not sure the converse holds true, however, and that removing unemployment payments will force someone into the job market, especially in a job market as depressed as this one. Besides we call this unemployment insurance for a reason and that is because we pay for it while we are working.
There are people who need social welfare. We have turned our friends and family members with mental issues out into society because we have drugs that are quite effective in keeping many of these issues under control. We do know, of course, that these drugs are not 100% effective and that they have annoying side effects that cause many to discontinue use. When meds are effective or are actually used people with mental issues may be employable, but not all with a mental disorder are. As a society we have a duty to help care for these individuals, and if we don’t there will be negative implications for our daily comfort. The same can be true for those with physical disabilities. Some disabilities are too severe to allow for gainful employment and these people also require social support for both their quality of life and ours. Seniors who have had a productive career, have made their contribution to society, have paid into a plan to support them when society seems to no longer require their skills are not really relying on social welfare. They bought a government program, which is now failing because our elected officials did not look after it and revise it as needed. This is really not the government’s program, this is the people’s program, and as such should be outside the arguments about what social welfare programs do to human endeavor.
We all know that there is a lot of cheating in these social welfare programs. Welfare has already been somewhat cheat-proofed. Medicaid and Medicare are under the microscope right now. Disability is one of the easiest programs to scam and one of the most difficult to safeguard. It is probably where more malingers gravitate than any of the other programs. Abuse of unemployment may be attractive but is usually limited in duration by the short duration of unemployment payments.
We need to be very careful about assuming that a blanket denial of social support would force Americans to be innovative, creative, and productive. There are times when the support given by social programs is unavoidable and offers social value that cannot be contested.