How Republicans’ cruelty threatens to destroy the world’s economy

The GOP is arguing that people who receive government-funded benefits are lazy and are refusing to work

Noah Berlatsky
Wednesday 17 May 2023 18:58 BST
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters as he stands with Congressional Republicans from both the US House and Senate during an event about debt ceiling negotiations
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters as he stands with Congressional Republicans from both the US House and Senate during an event about debt ceiling negotiations (REUTERS)

The GOP is threatening to destroy the world economy unless the Democrats agree to harm the poorest people in the country.

The Republican’s blind, remorseless cruelty is especially bleak because there is recent, clear evidence that spending on the vulnerable has major benefits for them and for the economy as a whole, with few downsides. The GOP policy defies not just compassion but reason. It is cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

Currently, the GOP is demanding increased work requirements for Medicaid, the food stamp Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and for welfare Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If Democrats do not comply, the Republicans say they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling. That would cause the US to default on its debt, destroying its credit. It would plunge the country, and the world, into a financial crisis on the scale of the 2008 Great Recession or worse.

The GOP is arguing that people who receive benefits are lazy and are refusing to work. As Eric Levitz explains at New York magazine, though, this is nonsense. Fully 93 percent of Medicaid recipients are working, attending school, caregiving, or disabled and unable to work. Food stamps already have tight work requirements. Republicans want to extend those to people over age 50, under the assumption that aging poor people are lazy and must be punished. As for TANF, work requirements are already so onerous that 26 percent of Americans who are eligible for the program don’t receive aid.

We also have a powerful recent example of the benefits of social safety net programs without work requirements. For around six months starting in June 2021, the United States transformed a program called the Child Tax Credit, turning it into a social security payment to poor families with children. Families below the poverty line with children under 17 received $250-$300 a month per child.

The results were stunning. Child poverty dropped by 30 percent to its lowest recorded level ever. The program lifted 3 million children out of poverty. Food insufficiency among families dropped by 26 percent.

Moreover, there is no evidence that the payments led people to stop working. One study found that 91 percent of families with low incomes were using the CTC payments for food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and education. A quarter of parents used the money for child care – which is what you’d expect if they planned to increase working hours. Sure enough, parents reporting that they were unemployed because they had to care for children fell after the CTC expansion, from 26 percent to 19.9 percent, and the shift was largest among low and middle-income parents.

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence that the CTC helped children in poverty and made it more likely that parents would work, Republicans and conservative Democrats continued to insist the payments would lead the supposedly lazy poor to stop working or to spend more money on illegal drugs. The program was not renewed, and in 2022 millions of children fell back into poverty.

The evidence is quite clear. When you provide those in need with straightforward, easy-to-access relief, poverty plummets. People are able to access child care and education, which means they can contribute more to the economy. Children have better nutrition and more stability, which improve productivity and well-being over a lifetime. Welfare payments have a dramatic effect on reducing crime, among other benefits.

Conservatives, though, are impervious to these arguments. The obvious conclusion is that they are not actually interested in helping those in need. That’s consistent with their reckless threats to breach the debt ceiling. The GOP is eager to harm poor and working people. Either they will eliminate benefits, or they will plunge the country into a recession. They are determined to harm their vulnerable constituents; the only question is who and how many. It’s like being governed by supervillains.

Fortunately, after some vacillation and progressive backlash, President Joe Biden has said he will not accept work requirements in the final deal. Unfortunately, the debt ceiling still looms. Biden has some options to raise the ceiling unilaterally, though those are somewhat risky with a very conservative Supreme Court eager to help Republicans in Congress brutalize working people.

The United States has the resources and the ability to lift struggling people out of poverty so they can better care for their children, pursue education, work, and live full, productive, meaningful lives. Republicans, though, prefer a United States with more misery and more poverty. They want to harm the American people. Why else would they be boasting about their willingness to throw the country into a massive recession?

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