Photo Credit: delauro.house.gov
Copyright © 2017 by Rosa L. DeLauro. This excerpt originally appeared in The Least Among Us: Waging the Battle for the Vulnerable by Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
It bears repeating that the reason companies do not feel free to poison us, sell us spoiled meat, lock our daughters up in ninth-floor sweatshops with no fire escapes, employ our underage sons in coal mines, force us to work thirteen-hour shifts without overtime or a break, or call in private armies to fire rifles at those of us who dare strike for higher wages is not because companies experienced a moment of Zen and decided to evolve. No. They were forced into greater accountability and social concern by the legitimate actions of a democratic government. In other words, if we depend on goodwill, we are all screwed.
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, I saw ample evidence all around me of just how vulnerable hardworking people are in the face of business indifference. In 1957, when I was a barely a teenager, the Franklin Street fire claimed the life of my friend’s mother. Fifteen people died in that fire because they couldn’t escape the smoke and flames. A fire escape was locked, and the ladder would not extend to the ground; there had been no fire drills, and doors opened the wrong way, blocking exits. It was a disaster, and it happened down the street from my house. It is impossible to be an eyewitness to events like that and not be touched by the gravity of our responsibility to one another. The enforcement of fire safety laws and other workplace safety laws is one way to ensure that employers fulfill their obligations to employees.
Technically speaking, the social safety net is an array of government programs that ensure that no American will fall so far down the socioeconomic ladder that getting back on their feet becomes impossible. The social safety net was built up throughout the twentieth century to help working people in times of need—and make sure kids do not get punished for their parents’ poverty. Morally speaking, the social safety net acknowledges that we are accountable to one another. It originated from our recognition that the vulnerable and the poor are not alien populations; they are us, in certain times and sometimes unforeseen circumstances. Economically speaking, having a social safety net makes sense.
Our safety net is one of our country’s greatest legacies, and it set the stage for a century of unparalleled prosperity that made the United States a beacon for the world. It was not something dreamed up by ideologues with a perverse agenda to weaken the average American’s moral fiber—as some of my colleagues now allege. The safety net’s growth was incremental and in response to genuine systemic crises. Republicans and Democrats alike supported it. That is why the attacks on it now keep me up at night.
When I interview somebody for a job in my congressional office, I warn them that they need to know I swear a lot. I compete with Rahm Emanuel on the use of the F-word. (He trails me because I am older than he is.) You could say that I swear because I care, or because I am passionate about good policy, or because a colorful vocabulary helps one command attention in a town that is still getting used to strong women. Honestly, I think the impulse comes from speaking with people in my district, hearing their stories, knowing they do not have the same opportunities to speak truth to power as I do. The strong words simply tumble out.
What has me swearing now are the increasingly radical conservative arguments against the safety net. Most stem from a series of falsehoods and misapprehensions rooted in a fundamental distrust of government and people in need. Among my opponents’ factually challenged assessments:
• They say the social safety net does not work.
• They say it traps people in cycles of “dependency.”
• They say our money is wasted.
Ultimately, though they are often careful to couch this falsehood in softer language, they contend that the people who receive benefits are unworthy. To top it off, they will occasionally suggest that the social safety net is a betrayal of our nation’s values.
In fact, the social safety net is the natural, inevitable, and morally sound embodiment of our nation’s values. Our system of social insurance started with Civil War veterans and the passage of the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, under which soldiers who had spent at least ninety days in Union forces and had been honorably discharged were to receive financial assistance if they were unable to perform manual labor. The act was a long time in the making—discussions had begun in the 1860s, but the act didn’t pass until 1890. Debate swirled for decades around the cost and the potential for fraud, much like today’s debates over the safety net, but compassion won out. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt took the central idea of the act—that in the United States we do not leave every man or woman to fend for him- or herself—one step further, and made all veterans, not just Union soldiers, eligible to receive a pension.
In the midst of the Great Depression, nearly every family faced the possibility of a catastrophic loss of income, wealth, and employment. America’s elderly population saw their assets lose value and their life savings disappear. In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, putting forward a vision of a country in which old age would not mean automatic penury for the majority of the population. Social Security provided economic security to retired workers who would otherwise struggle to cover basic living expenses. It rewarded work and investment in the system. During their years in the labor force, workers paid a tax on earnings that was collected in the Social Security Trust Fund. Starting at the age of sixty-two, anyone who had contributed to the system could begin receiving an annuity payment throughout their retirement years.
Social Security also created intergenerational ties, linking one generation’s work to the next and vice versa. It afforded people dignity. Poverty among the elderly exceeded 50 percent and began to fall with the first check issued. In the 1950s, more than 30 percent of American senior citizens still lived their last years in poverty. By 2005 that figure was closer to 10 percent.
The vision did not end there. The Social Security Act also created welfare and unemployment insurance, so that people experiencing a rough patch would not lose everything at the precise moment they needed assistance the most. Federally mandated and state-run, unemployment insurance allowed people who lost their jobs and who met their state’s eligibility requirements to receive financial assistance so that housing, food, and keeping the lights on did not become prohibitively expensive while they were out of work. Prior to the act’s passage, only seven states had enacted similar laws.
Though it took thirty years, our social safety net grew to meet the need for healthcare as well. In 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Social Security Act amendments that created Medicaid and Medicare. Medicare provides medical coverage for people aged sixty-five and older, as well as certain disabled non-elderly individuals. Medicaid is a federally mandated, state-run program that provides hospital and medical coverage for low-income people. Johnson receives all the credit for Medicare and Medicaid, but he himself credited former president Harry Truman, as Truman had proposed a universal health insurance program at the end of World War II.
Our safety net today also includes food stamps and nutrition assistance programs. All of the components of our safety net were humane responses to the Industrial Revolution and the economic, geographic, and lifestyle changes that accompanied it, advancing technology, globalization, and corporate power. These laws were not written by naive people. Our social safety net programs acknowledged that progress was making us on the whole richer, more powerful—but that it also led to incredible uncertainty and volatility. The designers of our social and human safety net realized that safeguards against family financial calamity benefited both the unfortunate and those in better circumstances, by preserving broad-based stability and confidence in the future.
I dwell on Social Security because it is the ultimate legislative expression of the values I grew up with: working hard, giving back, and looking after one’s community. At Catholic school we were lectured on how personal responsibility was never a purely private concern. Personal responsibility included thinking about one’s neighbors, especially those without resources or protectors of their own. We did not call it charity, or “handouts.” For us it was about values.
That philosophy—and its essential Americanness—was reflected in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words to Congress in 1934, when he said, “Security was attained in the earlier days through the interdependence of members of families upon each other and of the families within a small community upon each other. The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it. … This seeking for a greater measure of welfare and happiness does not indicate a change in values. It is rather a return to values lost in the course of our economic development and expansion” (emphasis mine).
It is hard to overstate how profoundly Social Security changed American life for the better, and how wrong its doubters were. From the very beginning, high-profile critics wasted no time attacking the program. Alf Landon, Kansas governor and 1936 Republican candidate for president, called the Social Security Act “the largest tax bill in history” and as such “a fraud on the working man … a cruel hoax.” Representative John Tabor (R-New York) said it was “insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people.” His New York colleague Daniel Reed was even more histrionic: “The lash of the dictator will be felt.” Senator Daniel Hastings (R-Delaware) asserted that Social Security would “end the progress of a great country,” while A. Harry Moore (D-New Jersey) said it would “take all the romance out of life.” Not to be outdone, in 1961, the future president Ronald Reagan would record an LP for the American Medical Association warning about Medicare: “The consequences will be dire beyond imagining,” Reagan said. “One of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
I declared my candidacy for the U.S. Congress in 1989 becauseI knew that Reagan’s definition of freedom was too narrow for real life. In the real world, we need each other. I had also seen firsthand what committed, passionate public servants could accomplish. I gave my announcement speech in Wooster Square, New Haven, around the corner from where I was born. I invoked my grandmother’s pastry shop, and how both my father and mother, Ted and Luisa DeLauro, worked in tough jobs before serving on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen, where they devoted themselves to helping people, families, neighborhoods. My folks did not develop policies or write legislation, but they made government work for people who were struggling. Their brand of politics was about helping people make their way through the system. For them, elected office was about using government to create opportunity. It meant helping out folks from the neighborhood if their sons or daughters got into trouble or were arrested, because everyone deserved a second chance, or helping their kids get a first job for the City or Public Works. Neighbors came to our house to discuss all manner of problems, while Luisa served coffee and baked cream puffs. Our kitchen table was my parents’ office and nobody gave a second thought to dropping by.
To this day, people stop me and say, “I’ll never forget your parents.” I just ran into a man who grew up in the neighborhood who told me that my father Ted kept him “on the straight and narrow.”
I shared my parents’ passion for making sure that working people get a break. The memory of how effective they were helped a lot because my first campaign was the toughest I have experienced by far. My opponent was a right-wing state senator named Tom Scott who had led an anti–tax increase movement. We did not see eye to eye on anything. The debates were ugly, the ads negative. I had crafted detailed plans for universal healthcare and a middle-class tax cut during my campaign, and argued for safe, affordable, quality day care, and helping seniors living on fixed incomes. In response Scott accused me of championing the right to abortion right up until the delivery room, challenged my Catholic credentials, and made a stink of my last name. My husband, Stan Greenberg, became a focal point, especially his Jewishness. (At the time, when women ran for office, they were assumed to either be lesbians or controlled by their husbands.) Editorials against me referred to me as “Rosa L. DeLauro, as Mrs. Greenberg likes to be called.” In fact Stan and I had been married since 1978, and there had never been any question of me keeping my name. The point of all these attacks, which at one point descended into a campaign event where Stan was referred to as “Stan Greenbucks,” was not policy debate, or even the meaning of public service. The point was appeals to prejudice and resentment of women. I was too liberal and too pro-government. But I eked out a 52 to 48 percent victory. Scott went on to host a talk radio show.
When I entered the halls of Congress in 1991, the voices that felt it was their God-given mission to dismantle our social safety net were in a minority, though they were loudly challenging the established Republican leaders in the House. They would succeed in their revolution and attack the social safety net four years later.
In the last few years a radical Republican Party has labeled social supports like food stamps a “hammock” whose sole purpose and only effect is to allow lazy people to stay lazy. They have attacked unemployment benefits as disabling. I have been hearing the hammock argument for a while now, and the cluelessness about the human condition that sustains it never ceases to amaze me. I do not know where they get this distorted view of human nature. Most people I know want to work and be an asset to their community.
What I do know, however, is that the social safety net’s attackers do not understand their American history. Many of these programs were not Democrat-only visions but developed on a bipartisan basis. Social Security passed in the House with 81 Republicans voting in favor and just 15 against. It passed in the Senate 77–6, with 16 Republicans voting for and only 5 against. Every presidential administration saw debates around safety net programs, but at stake were largely minor adjustments. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all supported refundable tax credits that helped ensure that families facing hard times would not fall into poverty. This bipartisan support reflected a real moral seriousness.
Today politicians display increasing skill in saying things that sound promising but totally obscure their true motivations. I recall when former president George W. Bush began talking about “saving Social Security.” Republicans had been whispering about this since the end of the 1990s, but now they were getting serious. I was surprised; none of the usual conservative arguments—like that it discourages work—would seem to apply to Social Security. A person’s Social Security benefits are based on past earnings on which he or she paid payroll taxes. Earn more over the course of your working life (up to an annual maximum that’s well into the six figures), receive more at the end of it.
The Bush administration cited projections showing that starting in 2018, benefits being paid out would exceed what Social Security took in. The truth is there was no compelling economic or budgetary urgency to address Social Security in 2005. Bush’s prescriptions made it clear that his desire for change stemmed from his belief that markets produced better outcomes than government. He proposed that a third of payroll taxes would be paid into private, individual accounts that could be invested in the stock market. I did not see how diverting money from the existing system would solve the problem of an expected shortfall. Never mind that under Bush’s plan, a large portion of any extra income from your private account would be offset by reductions drawn from your guaranteed Social Security check, regardless of how well your private account performed. In other words, Bush’s overall point was to introduce more risk to Social Security and turn it into an individual investment tool. That is why Speaker Nancy Pelosi was determined that the Democrats in the minority oppose Bush’s privatization plan and offer no alternative plan to “save” Social Security. There was tremendous pressure from elites focused on the deficit, demanding to know where our plan was. Pelosi said Social Security “has enabled our country to obey the commandment: honor thy father and mother,” and held fast. Our opposition had to be to the whole idea of reform, because the changes proposed contradicted our values. That could not be compromised.
Why is this important, and why does this matter today? Reshaping American values was the whole point of Bush’s push to “save” Social Security. The idea was to end a program grounded in the idea that every man and woman is our neighbor, and to toss out any sense that we are all in this life together. Today we hear echoes of Bush’s plan in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s rhetoric, as well as in the views of many of those who ran for president in 2016 and sit in the U.S. Senate. They all want to privatize Social Security. They all want us to relax and let corporations govern our lives. At least they are consistent.
We don’t know whether a President Donald Trump will threaten Social Security and its underlying premise of shared responsibility, though we do know his secretary of education will promote vouchers on an unprecedented scale that will undermine public education. Trump ran as an advocate for working people, but he really wasn’t. He was a champion of huge tax cuts and breaks for big corporations.
It is a strange time to be an advocate for working people. To hear some of my colleagues and the popular press swooning over the brilliance of today’s investors and hi-tech disrupters, you might be forgiven for thinking we rise and fall on the success of business alone. But in fact much has always depended on the people who go to work each day—and who, when circumstances force their hand, challenge those who compromise our collective health for their individual profit.
Late in 2008 I flew to Chicago to meet with president-elect Barack Obama. I arrived on a bitterly cold day but I barely noticed. The reason for my trip was an interview about a potential cabinet appointment—secretary of labor. Was I interested? I was. I prepared extensive notes. What would I do with the job? I had wrestled with that question every hour since the call came in. I read a biography of Frances Perkins, secretary of labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the architect of Social Security. By the time she met with Roosevelt in February 1933 to discuss what she might do as secretary of labor, Perkins had seen a lot. She had worked in settlement houses and fought for labor standards. As a young woman she watched the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York’s Greenwich Village from the pavement below. The Triangle fire was far worse than the Franklin Street fire in terms of lives lost—146 total, 123 of them women and girls—but the reasons for the tragedy were roughly the same: an employer who kept exits and access to stairwells locked and bolted, and who failed to provide adequate fire escapes, leaving workers to die on the job. Perkins had seen young women hanging out of the building’s upper-floor windows, many making the choice to leap to their deaths rather than be burned. “This made a terrible impression on the people of the state of New York,” Perkins later recalled. “I can’t begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa, mea culpa.”
The scene helped steel Perkins’s resolution to change lives for the better. Simply appealing to people’s better angels was not enough; there needed to be laws, and public policy, and federally mandated protections. The list she presented to Roosevelt of what she wanted to accomplish was long: minimum-wage protection, work-hours legislation, workers’ compensation, workplace safety regulations, federal aid for unemployment relief, and a national pension system as well as one for health insurance.
At my interview I told Obama that Perkins was my role model. I told him I wanted to be Frances Perkins and that whether or not I got the job, I would continue to advocate for what I believed in whatever forum I found myself.
I told him that the egregiousness of the Wall Street excesses that led to the Great Recession had given us an opportunity to correct the balance on behalf of the working classes. The conversation was deep, wide-ranging, and as I walked out of his office at the end I knew I did not have the job. My friends John Podesta and Rahm Emanuel were outside the door, and I could see it in their faces. Obama’s style is cerebral, cool, whereas I come in guns blazing. It would be hard to subsume my m.o. into doing and saying what was right for the administration.
But I knew what I had to do: get back to work. This is my vantage point to tell the story of the battle to defend our most vulnerable populations. We do not know how today’s assault on the social safety net will play out in this very dangerous time. What we do know is that real lives are affected. What for cable news pundits is ratings fodder that appeals to the basest rather than the noblest of instincts is of life-and-death importance to a significant portion of the American populace. There is nothing I would rather be doing than sharing what I have learned in hopes that others will join the cause.
Copyright © 2017 by Rosa L. DeLauro. This excerpt originally appeared in The Least Among Us: Waging the Battle for the Vulnerable by Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.