Last Friday The Crimson editorial board praised President Obama’s inauguration speech for his progressive stance on gay rights and climate change, while chiding him for his defense of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. The Crimson worries that President Obama’s rhetoric will prevent the “serious” work of cutting entitlements.
It’s a curious criticism. For the last four years, President Obama has been all too eager to cut Social Security and Medicare. Early in his presidency he created a commission to investigate ways to reduce the debt including cuts to entitlement programs. As recently as December he proposed a measure that would have changed the formula for calculating Social Security benefits, resulting in smaller checks for seniors. Without intense opposition from progressive advocacy groups and political stubbornness from House Republicans, President Obama would already have delivered cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
But in his inauguration speech, the president shifted his position. For the first time, he explained the vital importance of our social welfare system: “Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security… strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
President Obama took a big step forward by representing these programs as the cornerstone of our society instead of numbers on a budget line. It’s all too easy to point to numbers on charts and argue that cutting entitlement programs would reduce the debt. But such casual mathematics ignores the human cost of cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.
People who rely on Medicare are struggling to hold on until 65 as it is. West Virginia miners and South Carolina schoolteachers cannot afford to wait until 69 for Medicare. Cutting their Social Security check means forcing them to choose between prescription drugs or the electricity bill. And to cut Medicaid is to deprive impoverished children and families of the care they need. Cuts to these programs affect those who need it the most.
Americans believe in these programs. A December 2012 Marist/McClatchy poll found 74 percent of voters and even 68 percent of Republicans oppose cuts to Medicare. 70 percent oppose Medicaid cuts. A January New York Times/CBS poll found voters preferred cuts in military spending to cuts in Medicare and Social Security by more than two to one.
Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all support our social welfare system because it works. Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid keep the elderly from using all their savings to pay for medical bills. They keep people from starving on the street. Without these programs, 20 million people would be in poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Protecting the poor, the elderly, and the disabled expresses a belief in collective action. Life can be unpredictable and harsh, but no one should have to starve in a poorhouse. By supporting each other as a society, we can make our nation great.
Advocates for reducing the deficit by cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t believe that. Groups like Fix the Debt and the Peterson Foundation have spent decades hosting policy briefings, airing TV ads, and lobbying Congress to create fear about deficits. They have defined seriousness as a willingness to cut social welfare programs. If they were truly concerned about deficits, they would also advocate policies like raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting military spending, and ending corporate subsidies. The laser focus on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid reflects a belief that government should be favorable to the wealthy and corporations.
Cutting our social welfare system is not serious or brave. It is an endorsement of government for the wealthy, who have no need for such programs. They fought tooth and nail against the creation of Social Security under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It took another 22 years of exhaustive legislative battles before Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare into law. The day it passed the Senate, Johnson declared, “It is a great day for America.” Medicare, he said, “will bring the necessary satisfaction of having fulfilled the obligation of justice to those who have given a lifetime of service and labor to their country.”
President Obama recognized that last Monday. If he wants to continue to make our country great, he will protect and expand the social welfare programs that make it so.
Forrest S. Brown ’15 is a history concentrator in Leverett House.