With his “Build Back Better” plan, President Joe Biden is attempting to reform physical and social infrastructure in a manner akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although the bill will contribute to higher taxes for all socioeconomic groups, which most Republicans disagree with, both sides of the aisle agree that a nation where families are safe and secure is crucial (The New York Times, 2020). Yet the original $3.5 trillion package has shrunk by nearly $2 trillion; a piece of legislation that progressives championed as a once-in-a-generation investment gutted popular aspects such as dental and vision coverage for Medicare recipients, ditched the idea of free community college and heavily reduced paid family and medical leave after moderate Democrats threatened to oppose it (The New York Times, 2021). Other developed nations like Denmark and Norway provide a much better safety net than the one Biden proposes, but Republicans insist that his comparatively meager social spending places the country’s fiscal and moral values in jeopardy. All this begs the question: How did we get to a point where social welfare is considered a privilege?
The current resistance to social spending can be traced to January 1981, when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. Although outgoing president Jimmy Carter was also a bit hesitant towards social reform at the time, Reagan attributed the national economic decline to the government itself (The Washington Post, 1981). With regard to the economic crisis of the 1970s, he said, “[the economic crisis is] proportional to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result[s] from unnecessary and excessive growth of government” (Yale Law School, 1981). In other words, he believed that social programs were wasteful and would encourage federal dependence.
The distaste for big government remains a warped American ethic. Poverty is still viewed as a self-inflicted failure and social welfare is mischaracterized as an attraction for “failed” Americans. Politicians in both parties held the belief that successful families helped themselves until Bernie Sanders ran for president, when he reintroduced various ideas about rich Americans not necessarily earning their wealth (The New York Times, 2021).
Reagan’s tenure gave conservatives the opportunity to dismantle numerous New Deal and Great Society policies (Dissent, 2009). In his first two years, Reagan made nearly $22 billion in cuts to social welfare programs such as federal student loans (The New York Times, 1981). The federal deficit continued to grow, nearly tripling as Reagan began cutting taxes and accelerating military spending, yet conservatives cheered as the government finally passed their agenda (Forbes, 2017). Although employment recovered from the 1980 recession, workers were still one sickness or accident away from unemployment (The Washington Post, 1984).
Following Reagan’s term, Democrats remained complicit in reforming social programs. The bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law, placed mothers in low-wage jobs with no health benefits and funded sexual abstinence programs instead of advocating for reproductive health (aspe.gov, 1996). Nearly 15 years later, President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act only narrowly passed with 34 House Democrats voting in opposition (Ballotpedia), even after Obama buckled under pressure from both parties to abandon universal healthcare (McClatchy, 2015).
Today, the poverty rate is around 11 percent, roughly unchanged from 1973 (UC Davis, 2021). Americans are considered some of the most hard-working people in the world, yet some still pay their entire check on placing food at the table (World Population Review, 2021). Childcare can cost as much as a mortgage payment (The New York Times, 2021). Even with the Affordable Care Act in place, 28 million Americans remain uninsured (census.gov, 2020). Cutting social programs failed, but many politicians still advocate for this route. This is because Reagan-era ideologies are still prevalent, even in the Democratic party. Despite Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia stating that he is not against paid leave, some of his comments such as, “I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving towards an entitlement mentality,” indicate that he still believes increasing social welfare spending is immoral (The New York Times, 2021).
Unfortunately, what President Biden wants and what Americans require will not happen. The United States is in desperate need of a universal safety net. This year, nearly 18 million Americans said that they still could not afford prescription drugs (Gallup, 2021). Insurance companies and patients are contemplating how to address the astronomical expenses that COVID-19 continues to drive (The New York Times, 2021). The myths of an American individualism romanticized under Ronald Reagan continue to deeply affect us as a nation. The time has come to reverse the equation made in his first inaugural address: “[government] is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The ideal solution would be to gradually compile the safety net so a few conservatives can possibly support it until the United States accompanies other developed nations as happy and healthy.