This year I vowed not to pick apart Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan — the refurbished, but barely changed Path the Prosperity.
A path it certainly is. And it’s worth attending to because it shows where right-wing Republicans want to take us — if not all at once (highly improbable), then step by step. Or should I say manufactured crisis by crisis?
Specifically, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson indicates, they view “civil society as an alternative to government.” This should set off alarm bells among nonprofit service providers and all of us who care about the work they do.
Like last year’s plan — and the plan the year before — it purports to strengthen the safety net by block granting Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program), thus giving states “flexibility” to manage increasing diminished federal funds.
Except that they’d have to time-limit SNAP participation, since that worked so well for former — and now desperately poor — families dumped out of the safety net by “welfare reform.”
Retirement would be secured by converting Medicare into a modified voucher program that would jack up the per person cost of traditional Medicare, thus building a fiscal case for killing it.
Meanwhile, seniors would have to pay increasingly more for their insurance because the premium support they’d get from the government wouldn’t keep pace with rising health care costs.
And the Affordable Care Act would be repealed, including the federal incentives for Medicaid expansion. So an estimated 40-50 million more low and moderate-income people too young for Medicare wouldn’t have any health insurance whatever.
Something (unspecified) would be done to cut Social Security spending. The plan cites misleadingly over-simple life expectancy increases. So we can infer that Ryan wants the eligibility age increased again.
Also “less generous benefits.” We know by now that this is code for pegging Social Security cost-of-living adjustments to the chained CPI, which rises more slowly than the price index used now.
But the plan itself merely directs the President and Congress to propose reform legislation — a profile in courage, as one advocate remarked.
But I said I wasn’t going to write about these things. And here I am off on a tear.
The combination of what Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls “reverse Robin Hood policies” and the euphemisms used to describe them does that to me.
Well, the Path will die in the Senate, just like the previous plans. So the most we can say about it as a genuine budget blueprint is that it sets the stage of another partisan standoff.
What actually struck me about the plan was the introductory justification — not the lead-off hysteria about the imagined debt crisis, but the celebration of community.
The budget, Ryan says, “makes room for community — for the vast middle ground between government and the person.” People find happiness “through friendship, … in their families, their places of worship and youth groups.”
“While we belong to one country, we also belong to thousands of communities.” They encourage our personal growth. “So the duty of government is not to displace these communities, but to support them.”
Who could argue with that? Only someone, I suppose, who thought that the federal government was — or should be — the source of our personal happiness, sense of “belonging and self-fulfillment.”
The explicit message is that our communities — and our families — face many dangers, i.e., “rising health costs, a stagnant economy, massive debt, an uncertain world.”
The federal government can do something about these, but it shouldn’t play the leading role because its proper business is to “secure our individual rights and protect … [community] diversity.”
The unspoken message is that Ryan and his right-wing colleagues aim to divest the federal government of core responsibilities for the health, well-being and economic opportunities of the population as a whole.
The proposed Medicaid and SNAP block grants wouldn’t merely shift funding responsibilities to the states — by shrinking the federal cost shares over time.
They would ultimately shift feeding and tending to the medical needs of low-income people onto local communities because it’s wholly unrealistic to believe that states would — or even could — continue to absorb the costs of retaining these critical safety net programs intact.
Nor make up for deeper, as-yet-unspecified cuts to non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, e.g., education, transportation, public safety, housing assistance.
They’d be billions larger than those the current law requires because the Ryan budget would shift all further mandated cuts in defense to those other so-called discretionary programs.
States could also lose funds for school meals, other child nutrition programs and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because another $800 billion would be taken from programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations — in addition to those, like SNAP and the major health care programs, that the plan specifically names.
We would, in other words, return to some long ago time when faith-based and other local community organizations cared for the poor in their communities as best they could, with no government help whatever.
Many communities today have strong networks of nonprofit organizations that both supplement and serve as channels for federal spending on both safety net programs and others that meet vital human and economic needs.
But not all communities have such organizations.
And I doubt you could find a nonprofit anywhere that would say that it — and others in its network — could meet the needs of all low-income community members if the federal government backed out of its anti-poverty commitments.
In short, the budget plan presents a clear contrast between the right-wing Republican vision for our society and the vision President Obama campaigned on — that “we are greater together” and that government is a way we come together to help give life to values we commonly share.
Well, most of us anyway.