In Summation—The Future of the Social Safety Net

This week and next, The American Prospect, in conjunction with The Democratic Strategist, is proud to sponsor a special forum titled: Progressive Perspectives on the Future of the New Deal/Great Society Entitlement Programs.

This unique forum will proceed through seven essays—from Henry Aaron, Andrew Levison, Bob Kuttner, Bill Galston, Dean Baker, Mark Schmitt, and Will Marshall—with occasional summaries from the co-moderators, Kit Rachlis of the Prospect and Ed Kilgore of the Strategist.

The distinctive goal of this forum is to offer a “progressives-only” debate on entitlements—a debate that is often avoided or distorted by the necessity to resist conservative ideological assaults on the New Deal and Great Society safety net or by media-driven elite “deficit hawk” campaigns that seem to begin with the assumption that America’s only fiscal problem stems from “unaffordable” or “runaway” entitlements.

That in the mainstream media “entitlement reform” has become a synonym for structural changes in entitlements designed to cut benefits, shift costs to beneficiaries, or abandon national responsibility for these programs, has inhibited an important intra-progressive debate over how the safety net can be enhanced, sustained, and harmonized with other important progressive priorities.

Progressive discussions of this subject are also frequently hampered by the conflation of substantive arguments about social policy itself with those focused on more practical matters of political strategy. 

Now, we believe, is an ideal time to re-open and clarify the intra-progressive debate over the future of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and perhaps food stamps and the post-entitlement cash assistance program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which also form elements of the safety net). After all, declining federal budget deficits have taken a lot of the steam out of the “fiscal crisis” campaigns on the right and center-right. Moreover, the abandonment of any “grand bargain” budget negotiations for the foreseeable future (mainly due to conservative refusal to consider tax increases on the wealthy) has taken “entitlement reform” proposals—particularly those conditionally proposed by the Obama administration—off the table as well. And finally, the “wait and see” period we have entered with respect to implementation of the Affordable Care Act means we can now discuss long-term prospects for Medicare and Medicaid without assuming these programs are eternally defined by their present role in the “Obamacare” system.

We have asked a broad spectrum of progressive thinkers and writers to offer their thoughts on the future of entitlements. Some of these individuals are generally identified with a staunch defense of Social Security and Medicare as they are now, others fear entitlements violate intergenerational equity or threaten non-entitlement “investments.” What they all share, however, is a fundamental commitment to the preservation and strengthening of a robust social safety net as a central goal of progressive social policy. 

Aside from the light this forum may cast on the options facing progressives in maintaining a strong social safety net and the economic climate needed to sustain it, we also hope the forum will offer a model for an enhanced intra-progressive discourse. With the Obama administration soon to enter its final stage—and with progressives coming out of the defensive crouch conservative political tactics have induced—it is likely that we will soon witness one of those periodic “struggles for the soul” that occur when values, goals, policies, strategies and tactics are all under active discussion.

As we all know, such discussions have in the past occasionally taken on a bitter tone of recrimination and name-calling, and have also become associated with the agendas of individual politicians and organized factions. In keeping with the philosophy of the Prospect and the mission of the Strategist, we have sought to foster an atmosphere of civil and empirically-based debate in which no one is presumed to have a monopoly on the mantle of progressivism and no one attempts to score political points by decrying either excessive orthodoxy or incipient heresy rather than achieving persuasion by careful, reasoned argument.  

As a practical matter, after the initial essays in this forum have been presented, we will then entertain rejoinders and follow-ons from all participants—and if appropriate, from others. The forum will continue until all that’s worth saying has been said.  We hope you enjoy, and most of all, benefit from, this discussion of Progressive Perspectives on the Future of the New Deal/Great Society Entitlement Programs.

The American Prospect/Democratic Strategist forum, "The Future of the Social Safety Net: Progressive Perspectives on the the New Deal/Great Society Entitlement Programs," has concluded with seven initial essays and three rejoinders. We are proud of this forum, the first we know of to convince left-of-center thinkers to debate one another on this subject without “the enemy is listening” distractions caused by conservative proposals to ravage the safety net.  The debate covered a lot of ground and exposed areas of agreement (the need for an economic growth and healthcare cost containment strategy that will eliminate the entitlements vs. discretionary investments dilemma) and disagreement (whether means-tested reductions in entitlement spending are essential or inimical to a broader progressive economic and social agenda). 

Our overriding objectives in holding this forum were to foster empirically-based civil conversations among progressives on these subjects and to separate substantive from political strategy arguments.  We achieved mixed results; recriminations over past battles recurred on both sides of the centrist/liberal barrier, and strategic and substantive arguments continued to co-exist without sufficient differentiation. But it represented a start and perhaps a model for the essential intra-progressive debates we need to have on a broad range of issues once the loyalties associated with the Obama administration have become less central.

We’re not pleased that the forum didn’t spend much time on means-tested entitlements like Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP, TANF and the Obamacare subsidies, focusing as it did on “middle-class” entitlements and discretionary investments. Still, the forum moved toward a more global view of liberal priorities separate from particular budget fights. 

Above all, we hope the forum stimulates similar discussions among a more diverse community of progressives with a congruent set of ground rules encouraging clarity and civility.  As the 2016 presidential election approaches and progressives again rise up from their defensive haunches and define what they stand for, honest and even fearless conversations about priorities will become critical.  Let’s keep talking.