That’s not the kind of idea you normally hear from Republicans. But Strain’s point is that these aren’t normal times — and Republicans have to stop acting as if they are. “I don’t think traditional solutions that people on the right typically turn to would be particularly effective here,” he said. “Lower taxes are important for long-run growth. Less debt is important for long-run growth. But cutting the top marginal income tax rate this year or doing draconian spending cuts to balance the budget won’t be particularly effective in getting the unemployed back to work.”
Strain’s article doesn’t offer much in the way of budget estimates. So I asked him point-blank whether his proposals would require spending more money.
“Yes,” he said.
Elected Republicans who want to do something serious about poverty are going to need to get comfortable with that answer. In recent years, Republicans have backed themselves into a corner; virtually everything they’ve proposed entails deep cuts to programs for the poor. They’ve tried to escape this trap — and allegations by opponents that they are indifferent to suffering — by arguing that various reforms, such as turning federal programs over to the states, will unleash such miraculous efficiencies that meager budgets will stretch to cover existing needs.
The model they cite is welfare reform, which was enacted in 1996 during the highest-growth economy since the 1960s. Welfare cuts didn’t make the fight against poverty magically more efficient; they simply made it stingier. In 1996, 68 of 100 families living in poverty with children received welfare benefits. In 2010, two years after the worst economic shock since the Great Depression, only 27 of 100 such families were receiving benefits. The assistance once provided by welfare is now supplied by tax credits such as the earned income tax credit, which the government has vastly expanded.