A Glimpse at the "Opportunity Society"

Whenever Paul Ryan speaks on the need to reform the welfare state, he declares that what the United States needs is a social safety net, and not a hammock. The idea is easy to understand: A net is meant as a last resort, to keep you from serious danger; a hammock, by contrast, is designed to keep you comfortable or—in Ryan’s words—“lull able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

Each of the Republican presidential candidates have made similar declarations, and to that end, each has promised to cut social programs until we are left only with what’s necessary. As Mitt Romney put it in his speech last Wednesday, “I want to restore the values of economic freedom, opportunity, and small government that have made this nation the leader it is.”

The striking thing about this rhetoric is that it drastically overstates the extent to which we have a social safety net at all. Writing for the New York Times, Jason DeParle describes the shape of the welfare state for many Americans, showing that our “net” is nothing of the sort:

Asked how they survived without cash aid, virtually all of the women interviewed here said they had sold food stamps, getting 50 cents for every dollar of groceries they let others buy with their benefit cards. Many turned to food banks and churches. Nationally, roughly a quarter have subsidized housing, with rents as low as $50 a month.

Several women said the loss of aid had left them more dependent on troubled boyfriends. One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number so a relative could collect a tax credit worth $3,000.

“I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,” she said.

These particular women are former recipients of TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families, or “welfare reform”) who, because of strict eligibility requirements, were removed from the rolls. Worse, they happen to live in Arizona, where the state government has directed money away from welfare and into other programs.

This, it seems, is what the Republican Party wants to shred in the quest to end “dependency”—a federal welfare system so inadequate that it leaves women and children to rumage through garbage in hopes that they can make a little cash:

One family ruled out crime and rummaged through trash cans instead. The mother, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, could not get aid for herself but received $164 a month for her four American-born children until their time limit expired. Distraught at losing her only steady source of cash, she asked the children if they would be ashamed to help her collect discarded cans.

In some sense, I guess you could say that these people were kept from dependency and pushed into a life of working hard. Of course, it would probably be more accurate to say that they're destitute and trying to survive by any means necessary.

It should be said that this is the Republican Party’s vision for America, and before you accuse me of being unfair, keep in mind that each budget plan offered from Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans would force massive cuts to existing social programs. In the “Opportunity Society” envisioned by the GOP, we would all have a chance to scour trash for things to sell.