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.

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