The Government Shutdown Has Turned Into a War Against Welfare

If I default on my college loans, I can be certain that my debt will follow me to the grave.

But when our government is in jeopardy of defaulting on its financial obligation to 55 million seniors and people with disabilities, 9 million nursing mothers, infants and children, and 5 million veterans who sacrificed their time and health for our country, everyone else scrambles to adjust their budgets. Welcome to the war on government benefit programs.

With October 17 fast approaching, the question of whether or not the federal government is going to raise the debt ceiling in time to fulfill its financial responsibilities has drawn attention to two sad realities: (A) when time and funds are limited, the most vulnerable populations are the first ones tossed into the budgetary guillotine; and (B) the language and messaging underlying the war on social welfare programs has hoodwinked the masses into believing that their so-called inefficiency is the root of a ballooning deficit. Aside from the debt ceiling debate, the coverage of looming threats to Social Security, veterans’ benefits and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children demands attention, explanation and change.

But are benefit programs really the root of all deficits?

Let us look at the situation through the lens of a head of household with limited funds and a laundry list of bills and living expenses. According to the Treasury, or our savings account, in the event that the debt ceiling is not raised it will only have enough funds on hand to fulfill 60% of the nation’s financial obligations. As it stands, the Treasury only takes in about $9 billion in revenue but is committed to paying a grand total of $52 billion through more than 100 different payment programs. The treasury — which gets its money from all tax paying citizens, including the veterans, nursing mothers, elderly, and people with disability who benefit from its programs when they are in the most need for assistance — is the financial lifeline to most government benefit programs.

This dire situation brings us to a “pick-and-choose” dilemma. From a household perspective, it would make sense to pay bills for the services that are both paramount to our  ability to live as productive and efficient members of society, as well as to pay for fixed costs  of services that typically produce the most efficient and quality returns. Now the question becomes which programs are ran the most efficiently.

Consider WIC. Nearly 9 million mothers and children who are within 185% of the federal poverty rate rely on WIC. The program, which is not an entitlement program and therefore operates off of discretionary funding, is appropriated 7 billion a year so that mothers who are at “nutrition risk” can receive vouchers for nursing essentials. This include infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, and formula among several other items. The error rate: less than 3%.

Consider Social Security. Fifty-eight million Americans receive a grand total of $816 billion. Beneficiaries include retired workers, people with disabilities, and the dependents and survivors of those who received benefits. Over 70% of SS recipients are retirees and their dependents, of whom rely on their benefits as nearly half of their monthly income. The program’s cost has ballooned with a mix of baby boomers and longer life expectancy. The program has one of the most intensive anti-fraud units, enabling the Social Security Administration to impose $4.6 million in penalties and assessments for SS fraud.

Consider Veterans’ Benefits. One would assume that this is the easiest program to vouch for amidst any economic climate or partisan bickering. Roughly 4 million benefits go towards veterans and their families with disabilities. Speaking about the error rates of veterans’ benefits maybe a little taboo—but so is utterly denying them their pay. However, over the past few years, error rates in PTSD claims have decreased by 60%.

Make no mistake about it, all of these programs are expensive — and so are the salaries and pensions of public officials; and so is the bill we all foot when there is 17% tax noncompliance rate. But the general public has become divided and overwhelmingly desensitized to the millions of Americans who honestly need, deserve and benefit from the programs that they have even helped fund with their own tax dollars. Lies and fear mongering media coverage about fraud and the perverse over generalization of the so-called 47 percenters who do absolutely nothing but milk the government so that they may live comfortably on the poverty line continues to fuel the war on government benefit programs. When money is short and spending is high, the vulnerable will always be the immediate topic of conversation. We attempt to group and define tens-of-millions of Americans in an effort to invalidate programs that benefit them.

Not even job training or educational programs like Head Start are fully supported by the nemesis of benefits — their tip is to simply make a job from scratch and tell them to build relevant skills from scratch. If you cannot afford medicine, rent or groceries, do not fret — there is always a church or nonprofit that will pick up the pieces.

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Jerome Nathaniel

I am interested in social justice issues that continue to go unaddressed and undermined (prison reform, hunger and poverty and human sex trafficking) by the "juicy" headline stories. I am a recent graduate of the University of Rochester and currently serve as a Hunger Advocate at Rochester's regional food bank, Foodlink. Fun fact: I box, and love to punch things (usually bags. I don't have a problem with people).

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