In the past, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s proposals for entitlement reform have been criticized as being draconian, since they seem to put an extreme small-government ideology ahead of the needs of the elderly, children, the poor and the ill. They still do.
With the Republicans’ new and unfolding tax plan, which appears to overwhelmingly provide benefit for corporations and the wealthy, adding at least $1 trillion to the deficit, Ryan (R-Wis.) returned to entitlement reform last week. With a remarkable lack of irony, Ryan looked at the deficit that the Republicans were creating through their new tax plan, saw that it was a problem, and concluded the cause was the safety net.
“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said. “Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements — because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) was even more direct and blunt. He was quoted attacking “liberal programs” for the poor and saying, “Congress needs to stop wasting Americans’ money.”
What would it mean if Ryan and Hatch had their way, and Congress voted to eviscerate the safety net? The most immediate result, as predicted by those involved in the area, is that many seniors would be at severe risk of being able to afford basic housing, medical and food costs, as would be the case with others who depend on government funding for subsistence living.
A new study shows that out-of-pocket costs for health care in 2016 rose 3.9 percent — higher than the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, incomes are flat for most Americans, and inequality continues to grow. Another study shows the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the country’s wealth. And this generation’s prospects of earning more than their parents have fallen from 90 percent to 50 percent.
Poverty is real. The lack of financial independence in a large segment of our society is real. And the removal of “entitlement” supports will have potentially devastating impact on those in need.
There is a bipartisan consensus that entitlements should be reformed because an ever-increasing percentage of the budget goes to paying for them. The Bowles-Simpson commission made its proposal — which among other things, called for raising the retirement age for Social Security payouts and adjusting Medicare cost increases — in 2010, and it sank from view.
Even with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, a bipartisan solution is the best way to forge a solution that meets the needs of those who rely on a generous safety net, stokes the engine of innovation that drives the economy and creates wealth for all. Doing so would show that Congress, as an institution, has a heart as well as a calculator.