The Myth of the Callous Conservative

Rich Uncle Pennybags

It is unfortunate that in today’s America many people view conservatives in a stereotyped manner as greedy, callous, and uninformed. The greatest and most pernicious caricature of them all, however, is that conservatives care nothing for the poor. But conservatives do care, and have always presented ideas to reform and improve government programs designed to address the poorest Americans’ needs. My purpose in writing this article, then, is to examine a few of these initiatives, and explore why conservatives are lambasted for their selfishness anyway.

In September 2013, House Republicans introduced the American Health Care Reform Act. The bill proposes to promote competition and choice in the healthcare industry—thereby improving health care options and prices—by allowing insurance companies to sell plans across state lines. This is a great bill for consumers, because it would both incentivize companies to provide better services and prevent coverage from being disrupted when a person moves to a different state. The act also would allow small businesses to band together to buy insurance together in order to obtain the same health plan options that large corporations can offer, which provide better coverage at lower costs, but which most small businesses can’t afford on their own. Additionally, the bill seeks to expand the current protections for people with pre-existing conditions to guarantee that participating insurers do not discriminate against them. Finally, the act proposes giving the same tax break to individuals seeking to buy insurance privately as is given to individuals buying insurance through an employer, which will make the system fairer. This provision is clearly aimed at low-income Americans without stable jobs who must buy health insurance themselves. In short, the bill will lower insurance costs across the board, and especially for the poorest Americans without steady jobs—a clear demonstration by conservatives in Congress that they are concerned with people’s needs other than their own.

Likewise, the Heritage Foundation has suggestions to further improve healthcare for those on the market for individual plans. Since people frequently lose their health care when they leave or lose their jobs, many people, especially the poor, have trouble maintaining continuous coverage. Currently, the government provides protections to people moving from one employer plan to another or from an employer plan to an individual plan, so that people don’t have to worry about penalties or about losing their insurance. But these regulations do not apply to a person moving from one individual plan to another, so The Heritage Foundation suggests extending them to such people. Again, we see that conservatives are willing to work through federal regulations to guarantee crucial services to low-income individuals.

These are only a few of the numerous reforms conservatives have offered. Other laws they have proposed that are aimed at extending coverage to the uninsured include: The Patients’ Choice Act (2009), Improving Health Care for all Americans Act, Empower Patients first Act (2009), Ten Steps to Transform Health Care in America Act (2007), Every American Insured Health Care Act (2007), Healthy Americans Act (2007 and again in 2009), and President Bush’s own health care proposal in 2007. Most recently, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has created a health care proposal to fix Obamacare. Conservatives have plenty of health care ideas—it just seems that people aren’t listening.

Take another policy area in which conservatives are accused of not caring: upward mobility. In February 2014, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act, which would require that individuals look for, prepare for, or actually work in order to receive welfare benefits, a requirement only two of the 77 welfare programs currently contain. Conservatives don’t support this initiative because they think the poor are lazy, but because they know that a job is the best kind of safety net. Moreover, as these reforms help people get back into the workforce, they free future money to be spent on those who are truly in need. As long as a person is looking for work, preparing for work (which includes going to school) or working, they will be eligible for benefits. These reforms are important because they provide a safety net for those who cannot get a job due to situations not under their control, while encouraging work as the ultimate means of combatting poverty. And if this still sounds too harsh, consider that even the Netherlands has reformed their welfare system to require applicants to prove that they have spent at least four weeks actively looking for a job!

Furthermore, the Heritage Foundation suggests ending “Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility.’ Under this system, states consider income only, not assets, to determine eligibility for food stamps. This harms those who truly need benefits, because it allows some well-off individuals with very little income but valuable assets to use food stamps as a “bonus payment” to boost their wealth. Other loopholes exist as well, such as one that allows a person to automatically become eligible for food stamps upon receive any service from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). But receiving a “service” from TANF includes things as significant as getting one of their brochures. Again, this hurts people that truly need these benefits, as “services” like receiving a brochure do not actually identify people who are struggling. These reforms insure that all government programs and funding go to people who truly need a safety net.

Now that we have seen that the caricature of American conservatism has fallen flat, we naturally ask why it exists in the first place. One reason is that conservatives do not shy away from attempting to reform flaws in our current system of safety nets. And indeed, some of our healthcare and welfare programs are severely flawed. Under the President’s health care law, 4.7 million policies have been canceled because they were judged “substandard,” even though they did often cover accidents and unexpected health complications. Policies were canceled for not covering services such as maternity care and speech therapy, and, unsurprisingly, now that people are forced into purchasing plans with unnecessary services, their costs have risen. They will continue to do so unless the system is reformed—insurers project that in parts of the country, premiums will rise more than 10% in 2015 and 2016.

Likewise, government ought to address the fact that when the Obama administration allowed states to waive the work requirement of the 1996 welfare reform law, our programs invited abuse. Take the man who spends his time practicing with his band and surfing, while buying sushi and lobster with food stamps and living the “rat life” (in his own words). He claims that even if he was offered a job, he would not take it because this is the way he wants to live. Or the Pennsylvania Lotto winner who continues to receive benefits even after winning billions of dollars, or local black markets in which people buy one product with their benefits (such as soda) and exchange it for cash, or the couple who owned a 1.2 million dollar yacht and several houses while collecting welfare benefits from two states at the same time. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of fraud, and it obviously does not claim that most welfare recipients abuse the system or are not in need, but it is meant to prove that some of the money meant to help those in need is not getting to those it was intended for. Conservatives demand more government accountability and less wasteful spending in order to address these abuses, but are often accused instead of attacking the people who are using welfare programs out of genuine need.

But when we turn a blind eye to welfare abuse, we hurt the very people we intend to help—as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out, the government has defined “disability” so loosely that parents are taking their children out of literacy classes in order to continue receiving disability social security benefits. More than half of the children in the program have a fuzzy intellectual disability, and two thirds of these children transition to adult social security disability, because they never got the necessary academic foundations to help them succeed in the future. When safety net programs are not designed properly, they can trap people in poverty instead of helping them out of it.

The idea that conservatives don’t care about the poor is simply a caricature, both shameful and false. It is not difficult to stand on the floor of Congress and call for more—more services included in more healthcare plans offered to more people, or more benefits wrapped up into more welfare programs available to an ever-increasing percentage of our population. It takes greater courage to face the fact that, as they currently stand, government programs both invite abuse and, in certain cases, threaten to harm the very people they are intended to aid. It is not difficult to accuse conservatives of ignoring those worse off than themselves in their rush to cut spending and lower taxes. It takes greater integrity to acknowledge that our coffers are not bottomless, and that the best, and most dignified, safety net for our poor is a reliable source of work. It’s time for Democrats to stop hiding behind the caricature and respond.

Sofia Gallo is a freshman from New York City tentatively majoring in the Politics Department. She can be reached at sgallo@princeton.edu.

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