Commentary: An historic opportunity to expand federal social welfare programs – for better or for worse

I’ve written previously that one of the key issues in the 2022 congressional mid-terms will be whether voters want considerably more benefits from the federal government. Legislation has already passed, and more is pending in Congress, to dramatically increase government benefits for most Americans, extending well into the upper middle class.

For example, the child tax credit is now paying families earning up to $150,000 a year up to $300 a month for each child. Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) a family of four can now qualify for more than $800 a month for food, even though a typical family of four spends only a little more than $500 a month for food, according to the Wall Street Journal.

And much more welfare support is planned. A recent newsletter from the New York Times outlines some of the provisions of the $3.5 trillion (some project it will really be over $5 trillion) “human infrastructure” social spending bill recently moved forward by the U.S. House. The NY Times called it “Biden’s most ambitious attempt the reshape the American economy.”

It would come on top of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the pandemic-relief law that Biden signed in March, only this legislation “is likely to be larger and longer lasting, and would affect many aspects of daily life, like education, health care and perhaps even the weather.” The “sprawling bill” is designed to slow climate change, reduce poverty, expand pre-kindergarten education, provide free community college (including tuition and living expenses), and expand Medicare benefits.

It includes significant subsidies for clean energy and would help families pay for electric cars and energy-efficient homes.

Medicare would be expanded to include dental, hearing and vision coverage, and anyone 60 and up would qualify. Subsidies would increase for Obamacare plans, and for home health care.

The $300 per child per month tax credit would be made permanent for families earning up to $150,000 annually. Workers who take time off due to illness or to take care of a relative could receive up to $4,000 a month. Subsidies for childcare would increase.

This is, of course, on top of already existing social welfare programs. And all of this would be accompanied by more federal regulations.

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, commented on just one element of this legislation, the expansion of Medicare. He noted that, relatively recently, the talk about Medicare was how eligibility needed to be slightly restricted over time to ensure financial stability. Even moderate Democrats agreed that the program was in danger of going bankrupt.

Today, all the talk among Democrats is how the program must be expanded, even though the Medicare Part A trust fund is projected to be insolvent by 2026. Jindal said even without expansion, Medicare spending will nearly double over the next 10 years. Democrats want to make Medicare available to anyone over age 60, adding another 20 million people and costing $200 billion more over 10 years, worsening the program’s finances. 

All of this has me greatly concerned about our expectations of government and our growing dependency on federal largesse – and what we’re teaching young people. Some have said that the Achilles heel of democracy is the ability of citizens to vote themselves more and more “free” stuff until government collapses.

James Madison wrote that our Constitution requires “sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” otherwise, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” He further stated, “[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

Princeton University scholar and political philosopher Robert George said, “[P]eople lacking in virtue could be counted on to trade liberty for protection, for financial or personal security, for comfort … for having their problems solved quickly. And there will always be people occupying or standing for public office who will be happy to offer the deal.”

That deal is certainly being offered today. Voters in the 2020 midterm elections will determine the trajectory of our nation and our degree of shaky dependency on a federal government that is already bankrupt.