During a routine surgery in 2013, Dr. John Paul Kim, an anesthesiologist at Yale New Haven Hospital, learned that the patient he was about to put under was Dr. Edward Zigler—the father of Head Start. Overcome with emotion,Kim thanked him profusely—because he was a Head Start child himself. The son of Cambodian immigrants, Kim, has said that his life turned out differently than many other children in his neighborhood because of the power of Head Start. Programs like Head Start are inflection points for educational, nutritional, and health services. Kim is proof of the power of the social safety net—to lift up children and support families during tough times.
Social safety net programs ensure children are not punished for their parents’ poverty—and that they do not have to go hungry. The programs that make up our social safety net also fulfill our promise to seniors who have worked their entire lives that we have their backs in retirement. They provide quality healthcare to millions of children and seniors through Medicaid and Medicare. And they give families the boost they need when they lose a job.
After the Second World War, Republicans and Democrats came together to build our social safety net—programs that grew out of the belief that we have a moral responsibility to lift up our fellow Americans when they fall on tough times. Support for these programs has historically been bipartisan. Even as Republicans and Democrats had disagreements about their visions for the federal government, the social safety net remained an unassailable promise to the American people. When it came to these programs, real leaders on both sides of the aisle put people in need before politics.
Then came Ronald Reagan, and the advent of trickle-down economics. President Reagan’s fiscally irresponsible tax cuts created a massive deficit, which Republicans used as justification to try to gut social safety net programs — particularly food stamps, or SNAP, and Social Security.
Even Reagan’s birector of the Office of Management and the Budget, David Stockman, admitted the impact of the Reagan cuts were overblown, saying to the Atlantic: “Republicans claim that we had this great Golden Age in the 1980s… My argument is that this was mostly a phony prosperity built on massive additions to public and private debt.” He went on: “The ‘prosperity’ didn't come from tax cuts made by Republican policy makers.”
Fast forward to today, when the Republican tax scam that passed the Congress sets the stage for Paul Ryan and Donald Trump to slash the very social safety net programs that were once met with bipartisan support. The massive deficit the tax giveaway to millionaires, billionaires, and corporations lays the groundwork for what Ryan calls “entitlement reform.”
However, Republicans have not been coy about their true intentions. Sen. Orrin Hatch said, and I quote: “I have a rough time wanting to spend billion and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.” This is the ugly truth of the Republican tax scam — give money to the wealthy through tax cuts and ultimately pay for it by gutting the programs that help hard-working Americans.
Frankly, this is Ryan’s dream. The New York Times has reported that Ryan and his colleagues are “beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security.” We cannot allow Republicans to use irresponsible fiscal policy as an excuse to betray older Americans. President Trump has said, and I quote, “we’re going to go into welfare reform.”
Republicans will try to gut programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, LIHEAP, TANF, Head Start, childcare assistance, and SNAP. This is a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who do everything right, and still cannot get by. This will be our biggest battle yet—but with the health and safety of millions of seniors, children, and struggling families on the line, we cannot afford to lose.
The destruction of the social safety net is straight out of the Reagan playbook — and we have seen these heartless tactics rear their ugly head with Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” and the Tea Party movement.
But remember, together, we beat Newt Gingrich and his contract with America. We rejected Tea Party politics. Just this year, we saved the Affordable Care Act—and we beat back some of the most egregious cuts in Donald Trump’s mean-spirited budget proposal.
It is time to ask what kind of country we want to be. Will we betray millions of Americans, or fight for the legacy of good government? The social safety net is the heart and soul of that legacy — and I intend to fight for it.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro represents Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district.