Today at the car dealership, while awaiting the repairs from the annual dreaded task -- the state inspection -- I ran across a couple of local Republicans waiting for some work of their own to be completed. On the television was the discussion of the debt ceiling, as the bill had just cleared the Senate and was awaiting Obama's signature. They were having a lively chat about how important it was that we cut spending, and I decided to chime in.
First fact, and it's one that the media is finally picking up after the bill was passed -- deficit reduction during recessions harms economic growth. In the 1930s, FDR faced a similar situation. The country had spent significant amounts of money through the New Deal, including work programs such as the Works Progress Administration. He was pushed by conservative Democrats, Republicans, and a few trusted advisers that spending had to be reduced, and he did so. The economy collapsed, and the word "recession" was invented so as to not create panic over us re-entering the Great Depression. The cuts were reversed in 1938 through emergency spending, and the economy rebounded.
After hearing this information, they were a little hesitant to be supportive of this debt deal, but still felt we should cut spending. I asked them where they'd seek to cut, and one of them said that we shouldn't touch Social Security or Medicare, and we shouldn't touch military spending. I asked if he felt we should remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he stated that he didn't, he just felt that the troops are in harm's way and should be cared for. I suggested we bring them home, give them their GI Bills, and let them begin civilian careers -- and he thought this was a good idea.
They both shifted gears to welfare fraud -- too many people collect checks that shouldn't. They felt people use their TANF check to buy drugs, or they have more kids just to collect more benefits, or other kinds of fraud. They suggested drug testing for welfare recipients, and launching a deep investigation to find fraudulent welfare cases.
As I pay a bit of attention to such things, being a social work major, I informed them that fraud is about 2/10 of 1% of all cases in the state -- and it would cost more money to find the fraud than it would to allow it to continue. I asked if their concern was the morals or the money, and they said it was the money -- so by the end, they'd disposed of the fraud investigation. Still, drug testing was relevant.
I asked them why this was. I can't disagree with them being angry that people on welfare use state money to abuse drugs. If I knew someone doing this, I'd probably be angry with them, too. Still, I know the reality of drug addiction. Again, I asked them -- is this about money, or morals? This time, it was about the morals, they felt stolen from. Okay, hard to argue this, and I really wouldn't try.
But I did ask them, did they know that TANF checks go to parents with children? They did know this, and felt that women got pregnant so they could get more money. I asked them if they felt that they knew any woman who would go through nine months of pregnancy for an extra $1,500 or so a year -- and their eyes popped when they realized how little extra the woman would get. This argument, too, went by the wayside.
Then, back to substance abuse -- do they want the children starving? Well, of course they don't, they said. Do you want the children going into an already struggling foster care system, when that would cost the state money, and we know outcomes are better for children to remain with parents, even if they are dysfunctional? (Note: This is why DHHS works for 18 months to reunify children with parents.)
And so I suggested, maybe we should tie a positive drug test to required substance abuse treatment to keep the TANF flowing. I can't disagree with this as a "moderate" solution, we can combat a social problem and keep people fed at the same time. So, okay, we'll do drug tests and add a sensible condition to welfare. Fine by me. This is called being responsible with our money.
What I took away from this conversation overall was that these older, middle-class Republicans weren't so much concerned about spending as they were about spending badly. They were fine with the welfare checks, so long as most of them were being spent by people who needed the help and people weren't just using them to buy drugs. Helping the disadvantaged is a liberal message. Not spending taxpayer money on people who abuse that help is a conservative one. We can do both.
More on this conversation later this week.