Tax cuts might hurt the social safety net | Opinion

Upon closer inspection, I find that I agree with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders: the Republican tax plan looks a lot like a bait-and-switch gimmick that could put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid at risk.

These government-run programs are the lynchpins of the American social safety net. Social Security alone, a program that people pay into with every paycheck, prevents 22 million people from sinking into abject poverty.

This is particularly important for Appalachians, because, on the average, they are older and poorer. The majority of Appalachians depend on one or a combination of these programs for their basic well-being.

Here is how the bait and switch might work and why it matters:

First, the “bait” is dangled. A tax plan is presented as desirable for working- and middle-class Americans. In President Trump’s words, “They’re going to start seeing the results in February. This bill means more take-home pay. It will be an incredible Christmas gift for hard-working Americans.” Then, the bill was signed into law by Trump.

What the tax plan actually means for many peoples’ lives is unclear. But one thing is for sure. The new tax reform authorizes more American debt — up to $1.5 trillion in new deficit spending over 10 years.

Now, here is the possible “switch.”

The tax plan expands public debt. Politicians then use that increasing debt to justify slashing the social safety net.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is key to the bait and switch.

Talking on the Ross Kaminsky radio show just days after the passage of the tax-cut bill, Ryan reportedly said that “entitlement reform” was his legislative goal for 2018.

Because, “Frankly, it’s the health-care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements — because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking,” Ryan said.

He did not say that the tax cuts are a driver of debt, even though they will be a driver of massive additional debt.

Ryan also uses the phrase “entitlement reform,” which is a euphemism for privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The phrase attempts to put a benign face on a political decision that is likely detrimental to the oldest, poorest, and weakest men, women, and children in our country.

Consider what AARP had to say about a previous version of Ryan’s “entitlement reform” plan. The organization warned that it could “hurt seniors” by putting access to Medicare at risk and increasing monthly premiums for health care.

Likewise, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said that the Republican pursuit of privatization was “reckless” and that it would hurt the working class who depend on the social safety net the most.

These matters hit home. My dad worked most all of his life. His first job was at 12 for a sawmill in Whitetop, Virginia. Until he was nearly 70, Dad worked in various steel-fabrication shops in Washington, D.C., Roanoke, and Abingdon.

He has paid thousands of dollars in taxes to fund his old age and health care, which are his earned benefits. They are not some gift from the government. My dad and our family depend on the stability of Social Security and Medicare for his basic well-being, as do many millions of other men and women in Appalachia and America.

People who depend on these programs are more interested in stability, affordability, and accessibility. They are much less interested in market competition that will leave some people winners and other people losers.

The point about bait and switch is simple. The same political agenda that brought us tax reform, which gives most people a little relief but generously favors corporations over middle- and working-class folks, might also give us a dramatically weaker, more-expensive, and further inadequate social safety net.

Jacob L. Stump is an author, professor and small business owner from Konnarock in Southwest Virginia. He is a member of the Bristol Herald Courier’s Board of Contributors. Board members are regular Opinion page contributors, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of this newspaper staff and management.