“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Ronald Reagan’s famous “nine most terrifying words in the English language” continue to serve as fodder for conservatives and to infuriate progressives. Reagan’s mocking line kicked off a wave of anti-state backlash that conservatives continue to ride, and any long-range plan for rehabilitating the progressive agenda has to contend with the stigma that surrounds government aid.
But Reagan wasn’t announcing cuts in federal aid—quite the opposite. He was inoculating himself against criticism from conservatives for doling it out. Reagan was about to ask for a huge package of drought relief to farmers, including price-support loans for the entire season’s grain crop, which he said was essential for a “compassionate and responsible” government.
Americans accept the legitimacy and necessity of disaster aid and will punish politicians who don’t get it right. George W. Bush’s post-Katrina failure crippled him politically, even though the sufferers were those normally labeled by the right as undeserving.
In Bush’s fate is the key to rebuilding support for a state that can spend to provide health care, education, and decent housing. In America, need alone is almost never enough to justify government transfers. But government aid to those stricken by disaster and suffering “through no fault of their own” is not only legitimate; it’s required.
The American welfare state, and the New Deal in particular, were built on the political and legal precedent of disaster relief. The federal government has been helping disaster victims since the beginning of the republic, and New Dealers called on this history to argue that the Depression itself was essentially similar to natural disasters—an “economic earthquake”—that deserved, and even mandated, federal relief.
Roosevelt could justify programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and public power provision as akin to disaster relief. As Roosevelt’s relief captain Harry Hopkins said in a 1937 radio address, these programs weren’t “something new and revolutionary and frightful” but were “entirely traditional” American assistance “to help groups of citizens recover from disaster or other circumstances beyond their own control.” During the 1936 presidential campaign, FDR declared that those “hit by flood, drought, unemployment, or any other national disaster” were entitled to aid. The electorate agreed, as his huge majorities showed.
Much of FDR’s rhetoric and the propaganda resources of the state, including the administration’s documentary photographers, filmmakers, writers, and public-relations officers were turned to the task of representing the economic situation as a singular calamity, akin to a national hurricane or flood. The case that the New Dealers made in the 1930s may actually be easier to make today. In the age of YouTube, there are many opportunities to depict in visceral ways how joblessness, the financial crisis, mortgage foreclosures, and spiraling medical expenses are outside individual control.
Disaster relief also has the great virtue of generating legal as well as political support for redistribution. Legally, the power of Congress to define the general welfare and to tax and spend in order to promote it rests on a series of disaster-relief precedents beginning in the 1790s. These precedents anchored judicial approval of Social Security and other New Deal spending programs. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act reinforces Congress’s ability to engage in outright government spending as its strongest and least-disputed power. That’s why it would be much easier to defend a single-payer health-care system than a weaker and more administratively complex federal-state hybrid program.
This potency comes at a price. Political support for transfer programs melts away when their rationale shifts from relieving blameless loss toward “bare” need. Casting welfare as a needs-based entitlement beginning in the 1960s was thus a political mistake, though morally justified. The long unraveling of welfare capped by Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” is the sad consequence. Time limits, family caps, and other restrictions simply pared the program back until it once again fit within the ambit of disaster relief.
That ambit is not fixed, though. Just as Roosevelt launched a broad public-relations and media campaign to recast unemployment, aging, and dislocation as the “hazards and vicissitudes of life,” Clinton could and should have worked to portray poverty as a disaster afflicting millions of children “who are caught by circumstances beyond their control,” to borrow a phrase from a 1964 LBJ campaign commercial defending the War on Poverty.
Jacob Hacker, Drew Westen, and others have argued forcefully in this magazine that progressives can reclaim the political high ground by reconnecting to the pocketbook concerns of the middle class. While I agree wholeheartedly that we have to retake the high ground, history suggests that it’s located elsewhere. It may grate on our moral and political sensibilities to portray the poor as disaster victims rather than as citizens with needs, but in the American moral and political economy of redistribution, it is blamelessness that establishes the most durable claim.