You might be tired of me talking about the American Rescue Act, which passed the House of Representatives on March 10 and is headed to the President’s desk. But while the rest of the country is talking about Joe Biden’s dog, and while the press corps is asking about the White House cat (I am, alas, quite serious), we should talk about how this legislation, the first of more to come, reflects a sea change.
That sea change might be described as the difference between being a citizen who is inherently worthy of help by dint of being a free citizen as opposed to being a deserving person who is worthy of help by dint of being a deserving person. The latter is pretty much the core belief animating the conservative approach to welfare, an approach enshrined in economic policy by the Clinton administration, while the former is pretty much the core liberal approach of the Great Society that never got off the ground fully because the Vietnam War consumed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
Put another way, it has been conventional wisdom for decades that if you got help from the government, you had to show you deserved it by working. If you did not work, at least a little, you were undeserving of help. The government has an interest in your working, because the government has an interest in promoting productive labor, self-improvement, and in general a strong and robust national economy. A government that does not take into account deservingness is vulnerable to abuse, fraud and waste.
This conventional wisdom was so unquestioned a dozen years ago, in the aftermath of the 2008 panic, that it was downright dangerous, reputationally speaking, to suggest that maybe 40 percent of the $789 billion stimulus bill enacted in the early weeks of the Obama administration should not go to tax breaks given that tax breaks don’t help people who aren’t working. A better policy—and this was the dangerous part—was pitching people bales of cash. The Republicans already called any form of welfare a “government handout.” Could you imagine what they’d say about an actual handout?