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“The GOP’s Weird Social Security Gambit”: If That’s Christie’s Lead Issue, It Doesn’t Say A Lot For His Political Instincts

Now I know we don’t really care about Chris Christie and he’s less popular in New Jersey these days than air pollution in Elizabeth, but he actually said something interesting in his little “Hey, I’m still here” media blitz. He went after Social Security for no apparent reason.

Bizarre is the only word I can come up with for Christie’s proposal to means-test Social Security while also raising the retirement age to 69. It’s bizarre first because most experts think means-testing, which for Christie would start at $80,000, would be the death of the system. As the standard line goes, it would turn Social Security from an entitlement program to a welfare program, and welfare programs aren’t popular, so support for it would plunge, and it would end.

Of course, some people want that, so there is support for the idea among conservative policymakers. But here’s the thing, which is reason No. 2 the idea is bizarre: Who exactly was clamoring for this? Nobody! It’s been years since we’ve heard anyone making a big fuss about means-testing. Conservatives know it’s totally unrealistic, so they just don’t bring it up much. It’s akin to liberals and marginal tax rate north of 50 percent on dollars earned above some really huge amount. We’re for it in theory, sure, but we know it’s not in the cards, so there’s no point in even bringing it up. If that’s Christie’s lead issue, it doesn’t say a lot for his political instincts. You don’t even get truth-teller cred for this one, except from Pete Peterson and maybe The Washington Post editorial board (which hasn’t weighed in on Christie that I’ve seen but which generally backs “reining in” entitlements).

In New Hampshire over the weekend, many of the other leading Republicans, most notably Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, agreed with Christie on the retirement-age question. I don’t think this is crazy talk. We’re living longer, and while people who perform hard physical labor if anything should have their retirement ages lowered, more of us do the kind of work that we can keep doing after 65. The retirement age is 67 in Norway, and other European countries are debating an increase to 67. The age at which an American will be eligible to receive full benefits will rise from 65 to 67 by 2027, so an increase is already on the books.

But while I may not think the idea is crazy talk, my fellow Americans are decidedly cool to it, disagreeing with such a proposal by nearly 2-to-1 in most polls you see. And of course any talk about changing Social Security scares old people, who have increasingly been voting Republican.

So why are Republicans talking about it? It’s kind of mystifying. I suppose business broadly supports it. But I think it’s mostly become just an anti-government thing. The real position is to oppose Social Security entirely, because it’s socialism and so forth. But of course they can’t say that, so they back things like means-testing and raising the retirement age. That is a benefits cut, which I suppose they think in the back of their minds will help whittle away at the whole thing over time. Any time you hear a Republican talk about “saving” Social Security or Medicare, they mean “save” in the sense of “destroy.” Or at least “disfigure.”

On the other side, Democrats are suddenly talking about increasing benefits. In the Senate in late March, Elizabeth Warren introduced a mostly symbolic resolution calling for an increase in benefits (it didn’t say exactly how) and it got the support of 42 of 44 voting Democratic senators. Joe Manchin, even! (The nays were Delaware’s Tom Carper, a longtime deficit hawk, and Heidi Heitkamp, who represents deep-red North Dakota.)

No word on all this yet from You Know Who. But what Hillary Clinton does on Social Security will be a real indicator of how drunk on Populism Kool-Aid she’s willing to allow herself to get. Will she, for example, support raising the payroll tax cap? Right now, earnings up to $118,500 are subject to the Social Security and Medicare tax. (That figure rises every year with inflation.) For many liberals—though by no means all, since a lot of them dislike the payroll tax in the first place—doubling, tripling, quadrupling that cap is kind of an obvious step. It even polls well.

The last time she was a presidential candidate, Clinton seems to have tried to have it both ways on this one. It was Barack Obama who pretty consistently supported raising the cap, even if he didn’t talk about it much. According to this interesting report from the left-ish economics journal Dollars and Sense, Clinton’s campaign distributed a flier in Nevada lighting into Obama for wanting to raise the cap so he could “send more of Nevada families’ hard-earned dollars to Washington.”

Yet apparently an AP reporter heard Clinton tell an Iowa voter that she’d support a so-called doughnut-hole approach that would keep the cap where it is and then re-impose a payroll tax at a higher income level (at the time she is supposed to have suggested $200,000). That would spare the vast majority of upper-middle-class earners—voters with lots of political muscle, that is—from a tax increase.

I would bet Clinton goes this route if she does anything, although four years on, the re-imposition number will likely be higher than $200,000. But even just putting it into the conversation will be important. The entire Social Security debate is about how to cut it, not how to expand it. And yes, a tax is a tax, and it’s always risky to talk about one, but as taxes go, this one is probably less risky than most. People like Social Security and seem to grasp that what they pay in, they get back, which is still true for the vast majority of retirees, who get somewhat more back in benefits than they put in.

So let the Republicans talk about how to cut. Clinton ought to do the opposite. She should do it in her responsible, Wellesley-girl way. She’s not Warren and shouldn’t try to be. But she can still leave the Republicans looking stingy and small.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 20, 2015

April 21, 2015 Posted by | Chris Christie, GOP Presidential Candidates, Social Security | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Attack On Retired Poor And Middle-Class People”: The Real Reason Social Security Is The Third Rail Of American Politics

Chris Christie still harbors hopes of becoming the Republican nominee for president, and in search of a way to convince conservatives that he’s one of them—and reinforce the idea that he’s a bold truth-teller who doesn’t care whose feathers he ruffles, and you might not agree with him but you’ll always know he’s telling it like it is—Christie has announced a plan to cut Social Security benefits. He would do it in two ways. First, he would means-test benefits, reducing them for those who have over $80,000 in income and phasing them out entirely past $200,000 in income. Second, he would raise the retirement age to 69 (it’s currently 66 and will soon rise to 67).

As Matt Yglesias explains, the cut in upper-income benefits is getting most of the attention, which works to Christie’s benefit because it sounds like his plan hurts rich people. But in fact, the number of people affected would be fairly small, while increasing the retirement age would be devastating to people of modest incomes. That’s particularly true of people who do manual labor, which in your late 60s becomes increasingly difficult. So Christie is proposing a plan that is actually an attack on retired poor and middle-class people, but it’s being described as an attack on the rich.

I should point out that even means-testing benefits can be a clever way to undermine the program as a whole. It eliminates the understanding that it’s a program for everyone and instead changes it to a program just for people of modest incomes, which then opens it up to further cuts and changes in the future. This is why most liberals oppose means-testing, even though it sounds like something they would support.

In any case, I want to return to this idea that Chris Christie is willing to tell the hard truths. Every story about Social Security mentions that it is the “third rail of American politics,” meaning you can’t touch it without being zapped. Anyone who would do so naturally deserves praise for their courage and for doing what’s right despite the risk. But why is touching Social Security dangerous?

It isn’t because of some magical incantation that FDR spoke over the bill as he signed it. It’s because, with the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is the most successful and therefore beloved social program in American history. Before Social Security, aging was almost a guarantee of falling into poverty. If you’re below a certain age, you’ve probably never heard the cliché of old ladies eating cat food to survive, but at one time in America that was an actual thing.

But don’t we need to do something before Social Security goes broke? No. Social Security is not going broke, and if we want to fix the funding problems that we will confront a few decades from now there are relatively easy ways to do it; I discussed that years ago in this piece, and not much has changed since.

But back to Christie: Is it courageous to propose a policy change that would be tremendously cruel to millions of Americans? I guess it is in a way. But that doesn’t make it praiseworthy.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The Merican Prospect, April 16, 2015

April 19, 2015 Posted by | Chris Christie, Poor and Low Income, Social Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Warmed Over Reaganism”: Paul Ryan’s Poverty Trap; Stop Taking These Lame Makeovers Seriously!

McKay Coppins already told us that there’s a new Paul Ryan who really cares about poverty and the poor. Now Robert Costa has the details on the newest new Paul Ryan, who just released a report on poverty that is 204 pages long, which proves that he really cares about the poor, because when was the last time a Republican wrote that many words and sentences about them?

Last seen handing out neckties to poor kids, Ryan is now talking up his report, “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” which enumerates roughly 100 federal anti-poverty programs that Ryan tells Costa “have actually created a poverty trap.”

Now, Ryan’s plan does one positive thing: It makes Sen. Marco Rubio look kind of lazy and insincere. Because Rubio gave a much-heralded speech on the anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaring a War on Poverty, but it was only a few thousand words, it wasn’t 204 pages, and since then, he basically dropped the issue. Ryan says his report will provide the basis of his next budget. But the basic Ryan-Rubio message is the same warmed-over Reaganism: We fought a war on poverty and poverty won, so let’s give up.

But seriously, how many times are we going to be told that there’s a “new” Paul Ryan who really, really, really cares about the poor – and whose budget proposals consistently slash programs designed to help them. All that’s different about Ryan’s approach now is he’s telling the poor that cutting their programs is good for them, because it will free them from “the poverty trap.”

Also, how many generations of Republicans are going to rely on Bob Woodson’s self-promotion? Like Coppins, Costa tells us Ryan is looking to Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise for new ideas about fighting poverty. But it’s been generations now that Woodson has been reassuring Republicans, with zero evidence, that unfettered capitalism can heal the inner city. Can’t they even trouble themselves to find a new Bob Woodson?

In fact, Think Progress found that buried in Ryan’s report, beneath the dark warnings about a “poverty trap,” are findings that actually, even by GOP standards, a lot of anti-poverty programs are doing a lot of good. From the Veterans’ Health Administration to the Earned Income Tax Credit, Ryan’s report identifies at least 16 major programs that in fact help the poor and are a good bet for government. You wonder whether he even read his own report.

And in several of the areas where Ryan found fault with programs, the Fiscal Times found that the economists behind the studies Ryan cited say he misrepresented their data.

To be fair, Ryan actually makes three good points. One, he supports the once-bipartisan, now-GOP-questioned Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps low-wage families out of poverty (but even better would be if he called for a major expansion). The EITC is actually a huge part of the story behind the “47 percent” Ryan’s running mate Mitt Romney slurred in 2012. Ryan doesn’t acknowledge the dissonance, but his EITC support is welcome.

Ryan’s second fair point is that federal anti-poverty programs are a sketchy patchwork of mostly uncoordinated initiatives that would certainly work better if anyone put time into pulling them together. But Ryan merely criticizes that patchwork in order to rip it apart, proposing to slash rather than coordinate the services that help poor people, admittedly inadequately.

The third is more complicated, and if taken seriously, subverts Ryan’s entire message. He complains, correctly, that too many anti-poverty programs are “means-tested — meaning that benefits decline as recipients make more money — [so] poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates. The federal government effectively discourages them from making more money.”

Of course, the alternative to means-tested programs in other industrialized nations is universal programs that essentially set a floor for income, nutrition and health below which families can’t drop. Social Security and Medicare are rare American examples of universal program – ones that Ryan has repeatedly tried to gut (while most Republicans and even some conservative Democrats endorse “means testing” them). A guaranteed family income and a genuine national health insurance program could eliminate means-tested programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid – but Ryan and his GOP allies (and lots of Republicans) would never consider those notions.

Nor will they consider the other guaranteed anti-poverty program: a hike in the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would lift almost a million Americans out of poverty immediately – but Ryan’s party is opposed to it. Indeed, more Republicans are coming out every day saying there should be no minimum wage at all.

There is, indeed, a poverty trap in the U.S., and the media fall into it again and again: taking seriously the warmed over Reaganism of conservatives like Paul Ryan, and pretending there’s something in it that will help the poor.


By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, March 4, 2014

March 6, 2014 Posted by | Paul Ryan, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Plight Of The Poor”: Your Newest Fraudulent Poverty Crusader Is The Tea Party’s Mike Lee

Have you heard about the hot new trend that is sweeping the Republican Party? No, not “endorsing a celebrity’s confused defense of Jim Crow,” I am talking about “caring about poverty.” Marco Rubio cares. Paul Ryan cares. Rand Paul cares. Even Eric Cantor cares. Now, it can be revealed that Sen. Mike Lee also secretly cares very deeply about the plight of the poor.

“Tackling poverty may seem a counterintuitive agenda for one of the most conservative figures in Congress,” the Guardian says, but we have seen many examples over the last few months of how easily a far-right figure can earn positive press simply by stating that it is bad that some people are very poor and that something should be done about that. (Though to be fair to the press, it is actually pretty unusual to hear any politician admit that many Americans are very poor, and the last prominent politician to campaign on a platform of doing something about it turned out to be a toxic narcissist.)

Lee, best known for being a less telegenic Ted Cruz, declared a “war on poverty” last November. Unlike the prior War on Poverty, which was made up of various policies designed to alleviate poverty (and which was much more successful than its critics have claimed), Lee’s war on poverty is mainly about making the rhetorical case that government causes poverty and that eliminating welfare benefits for the poor will somehow spur “market forces” to solve the problem. Here are Lee’s policy proposals, as described by the Guardian:

-“[A“] bill, introduced last week, that would restore a work requirement for recipients of food stamps….”

-capping means-tested welfare spending at 2007 levels”

Capping spending on benefits at 2007 levels — that is, capping them where they were just before the devastating economic crisis and subsequent worldwide recession — seems, like so much of the modern GOP “anti-poverty” platform, to be more of a cruel joke than a serious suggestion. The right now rejects the idea that spending on benefits ought to increase when need increases, in favor of believing, because they really want to believe, that need increases because spending increases. Keep in mind too that “means-tested welfare spending” includes a wide array of programs beyond TANF and SNAP — scroll down to Sec. 301 here — and capping spending at 2007 levels would effectively reverse the ACA Medicaid expansion.

(The Guardian, to its credit and unlike certain American press outlets reporting on GOP poverty crusading, does quote experts explaining how Lee’s ideas will not actually help any poor people.)

At least Marco Rubio suggested a program that might actually alleviate poverty. (Though in order for it to do so, it would have to spend money. And that is why Marco Rubio is a huge failure at being a modern conservative superstar.) The Pauls and Lees simply argue that their goal of completely dismantling the welfare state is in fact an anti-poverty platform, because the government giving poor people money and vouchers is the only thing standing in the way of the poor lifting themselves from poverty with the assistance of the benevolent market.

When a Republican announces his war on poverty, impoverished people should understand that they are the ones the war is against.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, February 20, 2014

February 23, 2014 Posted by | Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Embracing Their Inner Ebenezer Scrooge”: The GOP’s Mean-Spirited Hostility Towards Food Stamps

For decades now, the Republican Party has been honing its reputation for hostility toward the downtrodden, the poor, the disadvantaged. While a few of its leaders have tried to either shed that image or to dress it up with a more appealing facade — think George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — lately the GOP has been enthusiastically embracing its inner Ebenezer Scrooge.

Consider its all-out assault on one of the government’s most venerable programs to assist the most vulnerable, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, usually known as “food stamps.” Last month, the GOP-dominated House passed an agriculture bill that omitted funding for the food stamp program — partly because the Republican caucus disagreed over whether cuts to the program should be merely harsh or extremely severe. Congressional conservatives have said they also want to include a work requirement and mandatory drug tests for beneficiaries.

Not so long ago, hardliners sought to cloak this sort of cruelty in the language of the greater good: the need to reduce government spending. But last month’s bill didn’t even attempt that pretense: It included billions in agricultural subsidies for wealthy farming interests, including some Republican members of Congress. It was the first time since 1973 that the House of Representatives omitted the food stamp program from the farm bill.

“It sounds to me like we’re in a downright mean time,” said Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which procured and distributed 45 million pounds of donated food and groceries in the last year. He said that his agency has doubled its distribution over the last four years, since the Great Recession devastated household incomes.

The profile of his client base has changed, too, over the last four years, he said. About 20 percent of beneficiaries report that this is the first time they’ve ever asked for assistance from government or charitable programs. Among them are people who once belonged to the secure middle class; some were formerly donors or volunteers at the food bank.

Moreover, Bolling said, about half the people who seek food assistance have jobs.

“They’re keeping their part of the social contract. They are getting up every day and going to a job, maybe two jobs. If a man gets up and goes to work every day, I don’t care what his job is, he ought to be able to feed his family,” he said.

Conservative critics paint a very different picture. They tend to speak contemptuously of those struggling to make ends meet, to describe a lazy “47 percent” who want nothing but handouts, to dismiss those who can’t make ends meet as responsible for their own hard luck.

Some of that hostility toward struggling Americans can be explained by a racial antagonism that presumes that most of them are black or brown. In Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, University of Michigan professor Donald Kinder and Vanderbilt professor Cindy Kam explain that means-tested programs such as food stamps have long been associated with the black poor. That makes them more likely to be viewed with suspicion by “ethnocentric” whites — those more likely to be antagonistic toward other racial groups.

Kinder and Kam say that public discourse by political “elites” — especially those on the conservative side of the spectrum — has “racialized” means-tested welfare programs. “Programs like … food stamps are understood by whites to largely benefit shiftless black people,” they write.

Those beliefs have persisted even though the Great Recession laid waste to the finances of many white families, too. They account for about 35.5 percent of food stamp recipients. Black Americans are disproportionately represented, but account for only about 23 percent. Latinos account for about 10 percent of recipients, while other racial groups account for smaller percentages, according to government data. (Eighteen percent of food stamp recipients belong to “race unknown.”)

Not that the facts tend to matter in a debate such as this. Nor do common decency and simple compassion hold much sway. If they did, there would be far fewer parents worrying about how to feed their children tonight.


By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, September 14, 2013

September 15, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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