Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

April 9, 2014

Middle-class safety net

Liberals are shocked (shocked!) that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his co-partisans would consider cutting Medicaid, food stamps, Pell grants and other programs that serve the neediest Americans. They have accused Ryan of trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

But long before Ryan unveiled his “Path to Prosperity,” politicians of both parties had been redistributing government spending away from the truly destitute and toward everyone else.

In the past few decades, the federal social safety net has gotten lusher and, on its face, more generous. Spending on the major safety-net programs nearly quadrupled between 1970 and 2010, and that’s after adjusting for inflation and population growth, according to calculations from Robert A. Moffitt, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University. He included both “means-tested” programs that are explicitly intended to combat poverty (such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing aid, Head Start, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the earned-income tax credit) and social insurance programs (Medicare, Social Security, disability insurance, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance).

There have, however, been winners and losers during that massive expansion.

Since the mid-1990s, the biggest increases in spending have gone to those who were middle class or hovering around the poverty line. Meanwhile, Americans in deep poverty — that is, with household earnings of less than 50 percent of the official poverty line — saw no change in their benefits in the decade leading up to the housing bubble. In fact, if you strip out Medicare and Medicaid, federal social spending on those in extreme poverty fell between 1993 and 2004.

Then, during the Great Recession and not-so-great recovery, automatic stabilizers kicked in and Congress passed new, mostly temporary, stimulus measures (such as unemployment-insurance benefit extensions). As a result, spending on the social safety net increased sharply and this time for a broader swath of Americans, including the very poor, “near-poor” and middle class. But it still rose more for people above the poverty line than it did for the very poor, Moffitt found.

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