Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queens” Re-emerge as Debate Intensifies over “Dependency Portal”

While he was campaigning for president in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan often told audience members that “welfare queens” were gaming the system at taxpayer expense. Although the term aptly described individuals who successfully manipulated social services to the point at which they received excessive benefits, it was highly controversial at the time.

Now that President Obama, and his closest political allies at the state level, have moved to unravel the 1996 welfare reform law, the term is suddenly back in vogue. Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential contender, has been accused of reintroducing the concept in campaign commercials critical of a directive from the Health and Human Services Department (HHS)  that dilutes work requirements.

“In 1996, President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare,” a new Romney TV ad declares. “But on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They would just send you your welfare check. And welfare-to-work goes back to being just plain old welfare. Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement because it works.”

Rhode Island Tea Party activists and free market policy analysts are convinced Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s administration is leading the charge against welfare reform at the state level. During a recent press conference, top government officials indicated that the health benefit exchange system could serve as a conduit for a range of social services including food stamps. Over time, the exchange system could morph into a “full-fledged dependency portal,” free market critics have charged.

In an interview, Jennifer Wood, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Roberts, confirmed that Rhode Island would consider using the exchange system, created as part of the federal health care law, as a gateway into other social welfare programs like food stamps as a long-term goal.

Chris Caramela, the 2012 election coordinator for the Rhode Island Tea Party, sees a coordinated effort at work on the federal and state level to reverse work requirements that he views as a proven policy success. In 1996, President Clinton signed off on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) legislation drafted by the Republican Congress.  Welfare caseloads have dropped dramatically since the law went into effect, according to the Heritage Foundation.

“We are talking about a very successful policy that has people moving from welfare to work,” Caramela observed. “But now our own state officials here in Rhode Island want to get people hooked on government dependency again, and they are using the health exchange to advance this goal.”

Rhode Island government officials appear to be taking cues from Saul Alinsky, a leftist community organizer prominent in the 1960s, Carmela suggested. Alinksy authored Rules for Radicals, which was published just before his death in 1972. In the book, Alinsky calls on activists to collapse America’s capitalist system by overloading the welfare rolls. Rules draws from a strategy Columbia University socialists Richard Andrew and his wife Frances Fox Piven first outlined back in 1966.

“Now that Obama is in office he’s actually trying to do this at the national level, while Rhode Island is doing everything it can to inflate the welfare rolls locally,” Caramela added. “This goes against everything the Tea Party stands for.”

Since it was first conceived, the Rhode Island health benefit exchange was set up with an eye toward expanding social welfare services, Lisa Blais, a spokesperson for Ocean State Tea Party In Action said.

“We absolutely believe this was the plan right from the beginning,” she said. “It could also mean that people who had no intention of seeking welfare benefits will now suddenly become eligible, and this means government will grow.”

Blais also expressed concern over long-term costs associated with planned expansion of Medicaid services. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), childless, able-bodied residents with household income below 133 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for Medicaid for the first time. The federal government will cover the costs of the Medicaid expansion for first three years. A policy brief from the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity warns that state taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill.

“The federal aid covering the Medicaid expansion will have phased down from 100% in 2014 to 90% in 2020,” the brief explains. “Therefore, in the unlikely event that total Medicaid spending does not increase from 2019 to 2020, the annual cost to Rhode Island taxpayers that year will be about $41.4 million.”

“From a social and a moral perspective we have to view both the exchange and the Medicaid expansion as government boondoggles that are going to cost us,” Blais said. “This arrangement is not going to lead to more affordable coverage because it involves taxpayer subsidies.”

Blais also cautioned against banking on promises from federal officials who do not always follow through on their financial commitments to state governments.

Policy groups are proposing alternative approaches to Medicaid reform that could potentially save Rhode Island taxpayers money and greatly benefit health care consumers. Christie Herrera, vice president of policy, for the Foundation for Government Accountability in Florida,  is encouraging policy makers to consider the innovations now underway in her state as a model for what can be done locally.

“There is a great success story in Florida that no one is talking about,” Herrera said.

The “Medicaid Cure” program, which now operates in five Florida counties, gives consumers a choice of 11 different Medicaid plans, Herrera explained. Counselors and advisers are available to help individuals select the best plans based on what doctors they are currently seeing and what medication they are taking, she said. One plan even provides home meal delivery services for women who have just given birth. Patients can also receive financial rewards for healthy behavior (up to $125.00 a year). Under “Medicaid Cure,” health care consumers can also  opt out of Medicaid and use the money to buy private insurance if it is offered through an employer.

Herrera estimates Rhode Island would save about $377 million a year if it implemented the Florida plan.

Reagan’s initially coined the term “welfare queen” when he challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Some media outlets see comparison between Reagan’s rhetoric and that of the latest crop of Republican presidential candidates. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the charge for welfare reform as part of the Contract with America, has described Obama as the”food stamp president.”

While the media may view Republican criticisms of welfare services as a negative, the public at large has a different view. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows that over 80 percent of American adults see work requirements as a positive.