President Obama’s Early Inklings of the Dependency Portal


In the battle of hidden video and archived recordings that is sure to characterize political campaigns during the digital age, audio emerged from a 1998 presentation by then-state-senator Barack Obama at Loyola University in Illinois.  The statement that made headlines (at least on the center-right side of the media) was now-President Obama’s belief in economic “redistribution” through the government.

Those who’ve been following the development, in the Ocean State, of what the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity is calling a “dependency portal” may be more concerned about the context.  Throughout the roughly twenty minutes prior to a question-and-answer period, Obama’s talk exposes early indications of precisely the model of which the Center has been warning.

In brief, the Center has identified the dependency portal as the end goal of Rhode Island’s health benefits exchange, as encouraged by the Obama administration, through the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA; aka ObamaCare).  Within a few years of implementation of the exchange, local officials envision a “unified infrastructure” that would offer “one-stop shopping” for government services.

Liberal policy and advocacy organizations at the national level are more exuberant in their characterization of that “infrastructure,” calling it an “expressway.”  Regardless of what service a resident initially seeks on the portal — whether welfare payments for the poor or health insurance subsidies for those up to 400% of the federal poverty level — the portal will automatically check his or her eligibility for every other service, subsidy, and handout.

The most aggressive plan would automatically enroll users in all programs for which they qualify, unless they opt out of them.  If the private medical, income, and family information that the system collects must be regularly updated, then payments could be adjusted automatically up and down over time.

In 1998, Obama explicitly mentioned the “burgeoning number of people who have no health insurance” as a group that activists could “reengage” so that they would have “troops behind them” when pushing for their favored policies.

He went on to describe “a potential majority coalition to move those agendas forward.” To reach a majority, then-senator Obama expanded the definition of the “working poor” to include not just minimum wage workers, but “also families of four making $30,000 a year.”  In 1998, that would have been approximately 185% of the poverty level; by 2012 standards, that level would be $42,643, or the equivalent of one full-time income of $20.50 per hour.

Obama went on to say that “one good thing” that resulted from the 1996 welfare reform (which he says he would have voted against) was that it “desegregates” the welfare population from other lower-income households. “Now, you just have one batch of folks.”

That is increasingly a majority population, and so to the extent that we have policy systems that are thinking about how do we provide effective healthcare to those populations, how do we provide job training so that people could upgrade their skills when they’re in these jobs, how do we provide effective child care, and of course, how do we educate the children in these families in such a way that they are able to access economic opportunity.  I think those are going to be the critical policy questions that we face in the coming century.

Grouping recipients of such services across “race and geography,” Obama said, would become “a useful means for coupling policy with politics.”  The resulting coalition of people who depended on government in one way or another would allow activists to advance their other, separate causes.

The early hints of the dependency portal idea weren’t entirely philosophical and strategic.  President Obama also emphasized that “the trick” would require some “technical” innovation to match the “political” innovation in order to “pool resources” in such a way as to, first, redistribute them and, second, tie the system to the marketplace, with local communities “tailor[ing]” it to their own circumstances.

Although the terminology has changed, to some extent, and the concept has evolved, those comments of a decade-and-a-half ago begin to connect the big-government strategy behind PPACA with its social assumptions and political motivations.

  • mangeek

    I don't see the problem with this at all. If we, as a democracy, decide that we think that folks making X should have access to help Y, then I want as little red tape between the two.

    Justin, my girlfriend's job is to connect the poor to various services. This kind of 'portal' would really simplify things for her clients, and possibly make it so there wouldn't need to be an army of social workers helping people fill out their own names, etc.

    I think it's valid to 'give everyone all the stuff they're entitled to' instead of relying on confusion and bureaucratic red tape to keep people out of the system. Once the enrollment is automatic, people from the left and right can debate what adjustments to eligibility need to be made.

  • justinkatz

    Three thoughts:

    1) It isn't just the people who are already seeking benefits who will find it easier; it's also the people who, looking at their own situation, don't really feel like they need benefits. But they won't refuse them, and many will become the political activists to whom the younger Obama was alluding.
    2) Red tape isn't the issue. Heretofore, welfare and such has been premised on two principles: first, that the people are below a threshold of need and, second, that they need the help enough to put up with a little bit of inconvenience and perhaps even stigma. Any safety net has to include incentive for people not to fall in and to climb out if they do. Reduce the incentive to avoid it, and becomes less a net and more a web.
    3) Do you really believe that the public debate, when this is implemented, will be some technocratic measuring of intellectual metrics between left and right? No. It will be "we can't afford this, and it isn't sustainable" versus "you want to starve people for the benefit of rich people" (translated as those who've worked and earned and perhaps invested in rental properties and such).

  • mangeek

    "…don't really feel like they need benefits. But they won't refuse them, and many will become the political activists…"

    I still don't see how that's a problem. Assume that you're a poor, barely-literate, mentally disabled mom in Central Falls. Should the assistance you get be dependent on the competence of the social worker you end up seeing? As for 'creating the activists', I don't think that's likely.

    "Any safety net has to include incentive for people not to fall in and to climb out if they do."

    So, devil's advocate here… Should the IRS just NOT LIST possible common deductions (like Mortgage Interest), that way only the people who are smart enough to know about it can include it in their returns? Nobody WANTS people on these services unless they need them, but if a person is working hard, barely getting by, and they're just oblivious to the fact that they could get $60 to help out with food, I want that person to get enrolled. Republicans should be working on crafting these systems in a way that helps folks 'ramp up' from dependents to contributors, not obfuscating access to the services or cutting the bottom line.

    3. You're right, and we both wish you weren't.

    Look, the story isn't that Obama and a bunch of activists are pushing food stamp usage to historic highs, it's that we're a nation that 1/7th of the population is poor enough to need help buying food. The best way to keep people off the safety net is to ensure that employment leads to a significantly better lifestyle than unemployment. I'm not sure anyone is realistically aiming for this.

  • justinkatz

    Here's the part I think we're differing one (which is to say, that I think you're missing): Many of the benefits in question aren't geared toward the hard-pressed and suffering. The health insurance subsidies go up to 400% of federal poverty level. That's $92k for a family of four. I've got a family of five, and we don't make that much.

    At a lower scale, I don't think most people… meaning people in their capacity as voters and taxpayers, not as potential recipients… realize what's on offer for people at 200% of FPL or 185% of FPL. That's the group that state-senator Obama was talking about looping in. Again, we're really not talking about the destitute. At best, we're talking about people drifting into and out of some economic difficulty, and my point is that we shouldn't be luring those folks into government subsidies that they don't perceive that they need and that might pave the way for increased dependency.

    Your comparison to the mortgage deduction is perfect for my argument in a couple of ways. First: We offer the deduction because we want (rightly or wrongly) more people to engage) in the activity that produces it. It's not an entitlement, but an incentive. That's point #2: The fact that you're conflating safety nets with tax incentives with entitlements is precisely the fatal problem of the dependency portal.