Tuesday night's fiscal cliff deal may not include any significant cuts to the social safety net, but that doesn't mean Washington has lost its appetite for austerity politics.
The Republican Party still wants to slash funding to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Unless looming automatic spending cuts are averted, the National Education Association estimates that 79,000 public schoolteachers could lose their jobs. Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, already meager, is expected to drop this year. And President Obama has already signaled that he's open to either cutting Social Security payments, raising the Medicare eligibility age, or perhaps both.
For organized labor and progressive advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, preventing welfare state cuts is a key 2013 objective. Their entire bargaining position is a defensive crouch, a plea to keep things exactly the way they are. In the atrophied liberal imagination of our time, that could almost be considered ambitious.
Freezing social spending would be a reasonable goal if America already treated its poorest citizens adequately, or even tolerably. It does neither. In fact, maintaining entitlement spending at current levels will still leave millions of people in abject poverty, with no possibility of social advancement or even basic comfort and security. The only difference between no cuts and cuts is the difference between more of the same and even more of the same.
Currently, an estimated 46.2 million Americans are in poverty. Nearly 44% of poor Americans are in "deep poverty," meaning they subsist on below half the official poverty line. Median earnings for all Americans have consistently dropped for the past four decades, and inequality has exploded. Americans are working longer hours in worse jobs for less compensation. Socioeconomic mobility is on its way towards functional extinction. And needless to say, all of these trends are heavily stratified along racial lines. This is the status quo which Beltway progressivism is fighting to preserve, because it can only foresee a worse alternative.
The goal of 21st century progressivism should be to radically expand the social safety net, not keep it it in its present condition. As Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase recently wrote, "We can, and should, ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, education, a secure retirement and a livable income, regardless of labor market uncertainties."
Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance and SNAP should be grown, not frozen.
The Clinton administration's cruel welfare "reforms" should be eradicated. We need more and better public health care, more and better public housing. A mandatory minimum income should be put on the table. If these initiatives come at the cost of a smaller national security state, a financial transaction tax, and/or significant tax increases on the wealthy, so much the better.
Of course, none of those demands are likely to be satisfied this year—maybe not even this decade. But American liberals need to ask themselves what they have to gain from turning stasis and incrementalism into a rallying cry. Tactical retreats may sometimes be necessary, but permanent tactical retreat is just another name for surrender.
Politics is the art of the possible, but possibility is a malleable thing. Time to start making some ridiculous demands.