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Social safety net is necessary for Americans

BY DANIEL TAIBLESON | APRIL 03, 2012 6:30 AM

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Conservatives regularly blame America's social safety net for giving rise to a host of societal ills. In their estimation, the major strands of America's social safety net (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) ensnare once hard-working Americans in the grip of government dependence — stripping them of their dynamism and spirit. In fact, in an opinion piece that appeared in USA Today, current Republican front-runner Mitt Romney went so far as to contended that entitlement programs "can only foster passivity and sloth."

But when weighed against the facts, it becomes evident the conservative narrative describing the relationship fundamentally misconstrues it. America's social safety net is not some inescapable web but an invaluable network of programs that accomplish a measurable good by alleviating the worst consequences of poverty that could otherwise be experienced by any American.

According to a study published by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities in February, 91 percent of all federal entitlement spending went to benefit the elderly, the severely disabled, and individuals in working households. More specifically, 53 percent went to benefit those over 65, 20 percent went to the non-elderly disabled, and 18 percent went to aid low-income working households.

In case anyone has jumped to the conclusion that the remaining 9 percent of spending is consumed by the so-called welfare queens of modern-conservative lore, it is worth mentioning that 7 of that remaining 9 percent goes toward medical care, unemployment insurance, Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64.

As it stands, for 55 percent of Social Security beneficiaries, the benefits make up more than half of their income. For 26 percent, Social Securitybenefits make up at least 90 percent of their income. In Iowa, those numbers are 64 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

Currently, fewer than 10 percent of elderly persons live below the poverty line — without Social Security, that number would be 55 percent nationwide. According to data from the Annual Economic Social Supplement, without Social Security, nearly 200,000 elderly Iowans would be thrust into poverty.

Then there is Medicaid — a program that overwhelmingly benefits the elderly, the disabled, and the working poor who might otherwise not be able to afford adequate medical insurance or obtain work that provides insurance. In fact, 43 percent of Medicaid spending goes toward caring for the blind and disabled, 19 percent goes toward caring for the elderly, and another 18 percent goes toward caring for poor children.

Without Medicaid, it would become financially impossible for nearly 500,000 Iowans to obtain preventive care or necessary medical treatment, pushing them to resort to the worst possible alternative — waiting until a medical issue becomes so severe that they must seek treatment in an emergency room.

For decades, conservatives have disseminated false information about America's foremost social programs. They have cast aspersions on the people who benefit from these programs, and they have lied about the degree to which these programs improve people's lives . Do not let yourself be fooled by this canard. America's social safety net exists for one purpose — to improve the well-being of struggling Americans, and it does so to extraordinary effect.


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