WHEN worlds collide:
The Republicans who control the Legislature have introduced a slew of bills to ensure that people getting public assistance aren't gaming the system. Yet Americans are wary of the perceived Republican indifference to the plight of the truly needy.
Based on anecdotal evidence about “welfare queens” and such, who hasn't been frustrated by stories about the “needy” finding ways to soak benevolent taxpayers? But based on scientific polling, taxpayers aren't so keen to pull the plug on welfare programs. And they don't think Republicans show enough compassion.
An Associated Press roundup of legislation found nearly a dozen bills filed by Republican Oklahoma lawmakers to modify public-assistance programs. These include work requirements, means-testing and denying benefits to people with drug convictions. House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, summed up the mood with his comment that compassion should be defined not by the number of people getting assistance but by the number of people leaving the public dole because they've bettered themselves.
It's hard to disagree with this, but advocates for social programs tend to put all welfare reforms into one mean-spirited basket. They demonize Republicans for proposing them. In this effort they have support from the folks who pay for welfare programs with their tax dollars.
Arthur C. Brooks, president of a free-enterprise think tank, points to polls showing that Republican candidates don't connect to many voters. They're perceived to care only about “the wealthy.” In a television interview last Sunday, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney blamed his defeat in part on a failure to connect with less-prosperous voters.
His opponent made the connection between Romney and “the wealthy” quite clear. This may have been the single most important factor in getting a second term for a president whose disastrous management of the economy has affected the poor disproportionately. Class envy works for The Great Divider. It was the main thing this underqualified candidate had going for him in 2008.
Brooks, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said Republicans hurt themselves when the package of moral values they push doesn't include caring for the most vulnerable. Brooks is hardly sympathetic to liberals, who talk “a big game about helping the bottom half, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable.”
The core argument Republicans need to make is that Barack Obama's Democrats are gradually destroying the safety net with irresponsible policies. This is an intellectual argument that won't easily translate into votes. As long as Obama and company can paint Republicans as uncaring aristocrats, they will suffer at the ballot box. But in some races they also benefit.
Which brings us back to Oklahoma and the public-assistance crackdown. Shannon and other lawmakers hear from voters who feel cheated by a system they pay for but which doesn't benefit them directly. They've seen (or think they've seen) instances of food stamp recipients behaving badly. So bills are filed to crack down on perceived welfare fraud.
Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, is the author of one such bill. It would bar benefits to those with $5,000 or more in “liquid assets.” He said he's heard from constituents who “often have to resort to bologna sandwiches for lunch” while welfare recipients who've made poor choices are subsidized by taxpayer dollars. In other words, at the anecdotal level, taxpayers are doing the math. At another level, though, Americans are rejecting what Brooks calls the faulty moral arithmetic of the GOP platform.
Somehow, Republicans must convince voters that the fuzzy math of the Democrats means we'll all be having bologna for lunch and the poor will be worse off than they are now.