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Opinion | The Shadow of Ronald Reagan Is Costing Us Dearly

In fact, Mr. Reagan’s welfare reforms just made the poor poorer. When a three-year recession hit in 1980, six million more Americans fell into poverty. By 1989, employment recovered, but a weak social safety net meant that workers were an illness or an accident away from hardship.

Democrats were complicit. In 1992, although he would try (but fail) to pass national health care, Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Looking to a second term, he later blasted big government. The bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 put mothers to work at low-wage jobs without health care benefits, linked food aid to work, established a five-year lifetime limit on benefits paid by federal money and funded sexual abstinence programs, not reproductive health. By 1999, single mothers on “workfare” had sunk deeper into poverty.

Progressive Democrats did only marginally better. In 2012, Republicans accused President Barack Obama of unwinding decades of welfare-to-work provisions, with a new system of waivers, work requirements and block grants that states had to follow. And while his Affordable Care Act passed narrowly, under pressure from both parties, he abandoned universal health care.

Today the poverty rate hovers around 11 percent, about where it was in 1973, and economic insecurity now envelops the working poor and middle class. Some economists now argue that the misery caused by decades of failure to support working families paved the way for Donald Trump’s presidency.

That may be true. Left to fend for themselves in poorly regulated markets, by default, working Americans do care for themselves — often on credit. Medical debt was recently pegged at $140 billion and student loans at over $1.7 trillion. Thirteen million workers have more than one job.

Americans work hard, but in the United States it costs money even to go to work. Child care, if parents can find it, can cost more than a mortgage payment. Elder care? Even more. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans are left uninsured.

Cutting social programs failed, yet this ethic dogs us to this day. Why? First, since the New Deal, conservatives have promoted the falsehood that universal welfare programs reward Americans for not working. Second, when Great Society programs failed to eliminate poverty, rather than make federal aid more accessible and inclusive, some liberals implicitly tied welfare to work and implied that the inability to make ends meet was a moral problem.

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