One of the most important political lessons from both domestic and international government programs is that the best way to help the poor is to help the middle class.
The most popular and effective anti-poverty programs in America are Social Security, Medicare and public education. In large part they are popular because they are truly universal. Since they help both the poor and the middle class, the middle class fights diligently to keep these programs strong and effective. Everyone pays for them and everyone benefits.
Programs designed exclusively to target the poor often don’t have the political power behind them needed for them to be sustained and successful. As we have seen at the state and federal level welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps are much easier targets for budget cutting in the name of austerity. When middle class people are struggling it can sound appealing to cut programs that help only “others” for the promise of tax relief.
This is a dynamic neo-liberal “centrist Democrats” either don’t understand, refuse to understand, or are actually quietly exploiting to destroy the programs.
While in some technocratic fantasy world it might theoretically be more effective to means-test everything down to the last penny, however that is not how the real world works. Long term policy is set by politicians and competing interests not economic simulations.
Even more than President Obama’s desire to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits, what is most frightening about his budget is how he wants to cut them. By using more means-testing and complex “carve outs” for the most vulnerable, Obama budget will move these programs away from being universal to being more like just another welfare program. Obama’s budget would not just cut these programs, it would weaken the long-term political support for them.
Photo by Barack Obama under Creative Commons license