MAISTROS: Framing The Budget Debate: It’s Not A ‘Safety Net.’ It’s A Welfare Trap

Bob Maistros Chief Writer, Reagan-Bush '84 campaign
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Trump’s $4.8 Trillion Budget Would Cut Safety Net Programs and Boost Defense.”

Trump’s budget puts safety-net programs in the crosshairs.”

Trump slashes foreign aid, cuts safety net programs in new budget proposal.”

Trump Proposes $4.8 Trillion Budget, With Cuts to Safety Nets.”

Whoomp. There it is.

Your correspondent is no social scientist, nor an economist. But knows something about “framing” a narrative.

And in this sampling of headlines, the debate parameters for the President’s just-submitted fiscal 2021 budget are mounted, matted, and masterfully encased.

Your phrase of the week, class: “safety net.”

We all get a literal safety net. It protects, say, a worker or trapeze artist, from a one-time catastrophic fall.

We grasp what “safety net” should mean in political parlance: the web of government social programs and services intended to protect the disadvantaged, sick and elderly from equally catastrophic circumstances beyond their control.

One more thing we all know: in most cases, that social “safety net” is a misnomer. It’s not about people being protected from a cataclysmic event or series of events.

For older Americans, it’s being force-marched into a Ponzi-like retirement income scheme and even worse system of government-financed health care. Both ostensibly funded by contributions throughout working lives – but actually based on a “pay-go” scheme careening toward imminent insolvency.

And in the case of many other beneficiaries, it’s about a way of life, funded by fellow citizens, based on bad choices. Many actually incentivized by the programs’ very existence.

That assertion hardly breaks new ground. Even liberal scholars acknowledge single parenthood is the key driving factor behind poverty. Recent research by the Institute for Family Studies confirms: poverty is virtually unknown among millennials who marry first and then have children.

Meanwhile, as Nicholas Eberstadt pointed out in a terrific 2017 Commentary article, “three-fifths of non-working, prime-age male Anglos” in 2013 were on disability. Observed he, “Disability checks and means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do.”

It’s no wonder that back in the 1990s, former California Governor Pete Wilson cautioned about welfare becoming not a safety net, but a hammock.

Yet social programs aren’t a hammock, either. They are, in reality – and again, this is not novel – a trap.

Recall the wave of stories early last decade demonstrating how a low-income single mom can be showered with nearly $60,000 in benefits – a package she could never recreate in the private sector. Consider how means-tested benefit programs disincentivize marriage – the real solution to improving citizens’ financial posture, health, educational attainment and social status – to the point of rendering it “irrational.”

Consider the mind-numbing existence so-called “safety net” programs promote and sustain. Eberstadt points out that “nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts” were taking pain medication on a daily basis, while spending 2000 hours a year watching TV, DVDs, Internet and hand-held devices – “as if it were a full-time job.”

And the funding source for around half those opioids? You guessed it. Medicaid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with characteristic understatement, slammed the President’s “savage multi-billion dollar cuts.” Even though, as usual, we’re really talking slowdowns of planned hikes from this administration’s and Congress’s communal spending orgies to date.

Even though with the “savage cuts,” the budget wouldn’t be in balance until 2035 (and unicorns fart candy sprinkles). And “boosting defense?” Military spending will plummet to pansy European levels by 2030.

For his part, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) decried “destructive and irrational” changes to “programs that help Americans make ends meet.”

But “safety net” programs aren’t supposed to, over the long term, “help Americans make ends meet.” That’s what work – morale-enhancing, pride-inducing work – is for. And lo and behold, some administration changes involve requiring recipients to hold or seek jobs – which this President’s policies, at least for the time being, are providing in abundance.

Such an approach, my friends, is the very definition of “rational.”

This commentator’s own experience – in particular, working with the homeless – is that people are resilient and resourceful. They will find a way. But they respond to incentives, and work whatever system they’re presented. Punish productivity and marriage – while subsidizing broken families, dependence and even substance abuse – and you’ll get less of the former and more of the latter.

So how about a truthful “framing” of the budget narrative for once?

“Trump Budget Aimed at Marginally Slowing Runaway Spending While Supplanting Soul-Sapping Welfare Trap with Continued Job-Creating Growth.”

In our dreams.

Bob Maistros is president of RPM Executive Communications, Inc., which provides high-level message development, communications strategy and crisis support to firms ranging from the Fortune 500 to tech startups, and he is of counsel at the Alexandria, Va.-based Strategic Action Public Affairs. He was chief writer for the 1984 Reagan re-election campaign and also wrote for Sens. Charles Grassley and Orrin Hatch