From Roosevelt to Gingrich: A Revolution in Compassion

Date: 8 Nov 1995 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

From Roosevelt to Gingrich: A Revolution in Compassion

by David Morris

November 8, 1995

At the 1932 Democratic Convention, the newly nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “The first obligation of government is the protection of the welfare and well-being…of its citizens.” That new idea spawned the New Deal.

In January, Republicans vowed to overturn the Roosevelt revolution. This month they kept their promise. Both houses of Congress have declared that the poor and the weak no longer have an automatic call on the nation’s resources.

Indeed, rather than giving the needy a helping hand, Republicans are giving them the back of their hand. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that the poor receive 21 percent of federal spending but will suffer cuts of 37-47 percent.

The Republican budget makes choices. It cuts billions from nutrition programs while maintaining the $5 billion a year tax loss from business deduction for fancy meals and box seats at basketball games. AFDC, slashed by 40 percent since 1970, will be cut by another 20 percent. Yet if the House tax plan passes, according to the Citizens for Tax Justice the richest l percent of Americans will receive $15,000 in additional benefits.

Republicans sometimes justify their actions by arguing that government spending hasn’t helped the poor. Nonsense. As a result of Medicaid, by 1990 the proportion of black women receiving early prenatal care increased by 50 percent. Infant mortality among African Americans dropped by more than half and the percentage of poor Americans who had not seen a physician for more than two years was halved.

Republicans argue that government aid has encouraged immorality. As evidence, they cite the rising illegitimacy rate among teenagers. But the highest teenage birth rates occur in states with the lowest AFDC benefits. And Europe, which offers a far more generous package of benefits to the poor, boasts far lower teen birth rates. If Republicans truly wanted to reduce teenage pregnancies, based on this evidence, they would be demanding a dramatic increase, not a decrease in benefits.

When the private sector proves incapable of taking care of the nation’s citizens, government must step in. That was the Roosevelt revolution. In 1933 the situation was clear: 25 percent unemployment and a nationwide run on the banks. In 1995 the picture is less stark, but ample evidence exists that the private sector is no longer providing the majority of Americans a better life.

The reason is simple. Workers are no longer benefitting from their higher productivity. From 1947 to 1973 workers wages and benefits rose faster than increases in productivity. From 1982 to 1994 wages and benefits rose a third as fast. In the last year wages and benefits actually have fallen even as productivity continued to rise.

The result? In 1967 a full time worker earning the minimum wage could provide for a family of three. Today that same worker earns far below the poverty line for a family of two.

To try to maintain the same standard of living, the typical family now has two rather than one wage earner. And both workers work longer hours. We work 20 days more a year than we did in 1970. One result is that parents have 10-12 hours a week less time available for their children.

The unwillingness or inability of the private sector to reward labor for its higher productivity, I submit, is a much more compelling cause of the breakdown of the American family and rising poverty than government support for the poor.

How could the government repair the problem? One way is to raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage has dropped by almost 30 percent in the last two decades. But House Majority Leader Dick Armey is proposing to eliminate the minimum wage.

Another strategy is to expand the earned income tax credit.(EITC). Unlike a rise in the minimum wage, the EITC raises wages without raising labor costs to business. Instead, the Republican budget will slash the EITC by $23-42 billion.

A third strategy is for the government to tax the dramatically increased corporate profits and income of wealthy shareholders to expand social services. But Republicans want to reduce taxes on corporate profits and the wealthy. And as for expanding social services, consider what a difference a year makes. In 1994 we engaged in a Democrat-led debate about how to provide health care coverage to 40 million uninsured Americans. This year the Republican-led debate focuses on how to reduce the number of people presently covered by federal health programs.

The first obligation of government is to protect those in need. When the private sector is not meeting the needs of the nation, government must step in. These two principles comprise the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. They have served the country well for 60 years. The Republicans came to power promising to turn the clock backwards. The package they are sending to the White House fulfills that promise. Now it is up to the President.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.