The GOP’s Entitlement Challenge

December 17, 2014 Topic: Domestic Politics Region: United States

The GOP’s Entitlement Challenge

The states conservatives need to win the presidency benefit disproportionally from entitlements. Reagan’s principles can guide compassionate reform.

Pence’s proposal is trying to solve a very real problem. According to Archambault and his colleagues’ own data, 37.3 percent of Hoosiers in a household earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level are uninsured. That figure is 32.9 percent even among those working full-time, all year. Any children in these uninsured households are already eligible for publicly funded insurance through Medicaid or CHIP, so the question to answer is whether society should work to help adults have the same benefit.

Conservatives who “just say no” to this question ignore the political and economic realities of our time. They also ignore the manner in which conservative principles can be used to help address this problem without the sort of one-size-fits-all programs conservatives rightly decry. In this, they can draw on the principles elucidated by Ronald Reagan for guidance.


FEW PEOPLE would argue that Reagan was a fan of the modern welfare state. He burst onto the national political scene with “A Time for Choosing,” a televised address endorsing Barry Goldwater. The speech frequently equated American liberals with socialists and castigated people for trading liberty for the “soup kitchen of the welfare state.” Even then, however, Reagan did not oppose all federal efforts to help needy Americans. Indeed, this famous speech includes an oft-overlooked middle portion that provides prescient guidance for today’s conservatives who seek an alternative to “just say no” policies.

In that part, Reagan asserted that the federal government should ensure that no old person would become “destitute” because of old age, and that “no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.” In other words, he endorsed the principle that justifies Social Security and Medicare. He was critical of both programs, however, because they were “compulsory government program[s]” that did not allow individuals to make choices that would benefit themselves without compromising the purpose of the programs. Assistance for people who need it and private provision for people who don’t were the linchpins of Reagan’s approach to redistribution.

Today, these principles could be used to significantly reform the entitlement and welfare programs conservatives decry without heartlessly ignoring those in need. Health insurance for adults working at or near the poverty line, for example, could be provided on a premium-support model that gives workers a subsidy to purchase private-sector insurance. This could be significantly different from the exchanges under Obamacare because the policies available on those websites are heavily regulated by the federal government, with a whole set of mandated benefits and standardized coverage clauses that force people to buy insurance they neither want nor need. A conservative alternative would be much more flexible and permit people to buy all sorts of policies that better meet their health and financial goals. A Reagan-inspired conservative approach could also permit individuals receiving such financial aid to use it to meet their portions of any employer-offered policy.

Other programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, SSDI and SSI could also be reformed to provide the right help to the right people in the right manner. For the low-skilled person who is not fully incapacitated, these programs could be changed along the lines of the 1990s-era welfare-reform bill conservatives of all stripes normally champion. That bill established firm work requirements so that able-bodied adults who could work in some way were required to work. It also provided work supports such as child-care vouchers, vocational counseling and tax credits for employers who hired welfare-eligible mothers so that discouraged but capable moms could have the right assistance to find and keep jobs. Contemporaneous expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) also functioned as an effective wage subsidy to ensure that single mothers working in low-skilled, low-pay jobs had their earnings raised so they weren’t financially tempted to give up.

SSDI and SSI, for example, could be reformed so that applicants on the margin (i.e., those physically and mentally able to do some work) received counseling and medication to treat their issues instead of being ruled incapable of performing any work whatsoever. If jobs were scarce in their cities, the federal government could offer relocation allowances to encourage them to move to more economically vibrant locations. (Unemployment insurance could also be reformed to permit this.) The money spent on food stamps for these people could be shifted, as proposed by Senator Marco Rubio, to some form of formal wage subsidy along the lines of a revised EITC. In each case, these types of reforms would make it easier for the challenged, low-skilled person to say “yes, I can” rather than “no, I can’t.” By embracing some form of federal assistance for these people in need, conservatives would likely reduce dependency more than they would under the “just say no” approach.

This approach would also begin to address conservatives’ long-standing political nemesis, compassion. Polls for decades have shown voters rate Democrats as being more compassionate than either Republicans or conservatives. Compassion was the issue in 2012, as is demonstrated by the exit polls. Voters were asked which of four qualities was most important to them in a president. Mitt Romney won among voters selecting three of these qualities: “Shares my values,” “is a strong leader” and “has a vision for the future.” Fully 74 percent of the voters chose one of these three qualities, and Romney won them handily by between nine and twenty-three points. He isn’t president today because he lost among the 21 percent who chose the fourth quality by sixty-three points. That quality: “Cares about people like me.”

Conservatives often fret about the gender gap, the racial gap and the marriage gap. But these gaps, large as they are, are probably driven as much by one underlying concern as they are by separate issues. Conservatives need to address the empathy gap, and “just say no” is precisely the wrong way to do it.

“The dreams of people may differ,” Ronald Reagan once said, “but everyone wants their dreams to come true.” For tens of millions of low-skilled Americans, their dreams are not coming true. For too many, they are turning into nightmares. American conservatism at its best embraces Reagan’s thought, combining a love of liberty with an overriding love of all people. In the present crisis, antigovernment fundamentalism threatens to place the two at odds with one another, to fatal effect for conservatism and for the country.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.