Conor Smyth Media Criticism Pandemic

NYT Blames US Public for Collapse of Pandemic Safety Net

By Conor Smyth / Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Thanks in large part to pandemic social spending, employment recovered from the 2020 recession in record time (Chart: Apricitas Economics4/8/23).

A ban on evictions. Required paid leave. Continuous Medicaid coverage. Free school meals. Emergency SNAP allotments. An extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits. Child tax credit expansion. Thousands in stimulus checks.

These measures were part of a suite of policies the US government passed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic fallout it precipitated. They were meant to blunt the damage, to protect the population from a much darker alternative.

And they were remarkably successful. The government boosted incomes of the worst-off in a way that would have appeared totally alien in 2001 or 2008. And the speed at which employment rebounded put other recent recoveries to shame.

Change in median real earnings for the poorest 20% during recent recessions. In the Covid pandemic, unlike in 2001 and 2008, government relief more than made up for loss of income by poor workers. (Chart: Social Science Research Network, 12/5/22.)

Yet the pandemic era social safety net is now in the midst of a long death gasp. After pulling a much more robust welfare state out of a hat, the government appears determined to slowly suffocate it. Meanwhile, the public is treated to muffled yelps.

The national news media seem relatively uninterested in informing the population of the demise of Covid-related safety net provisions. In 2021, Sunday shows were silent about the expiration of the eviction ban and increased unemployment benefits. In the lead-up to the expiration of continuous Medicaid coverage on March 31 of this year, major cable news outlets were once again largely mute about the development. As Bryce Greene summarized for FAIR (4/7/23), “Trump’s Idling Plane Got More TV Coverage Than Biden Cutting Healthcare for 15 Million.”

A mix of reality and fantasy

The New York Times article (4/6/23) had a helpful chart that showed when pandemic era programs started and ended.

So it was great to see an article dedicated to the issue show up in the New York Times (4/6/23). The piece, headlined “The US Built a European-Style Welfare State. It’s Largely Over,” included a detailed breakdown of various additions to the US welfare state—a much-demonized term for what amounts to a host of government programs that look out for the well-being of the population, particularly the worst-off—over the course of the pandemic.

Reporters Claire Cain Miller and Alicia Parlapiano touted the child tax credit’s success in cutting child poverty by a third. They pointed to the success of pandemic-era policies in reducing the percentage of Americans lacking health insurance to a historic low of 8%. And they hailed the breadth of coverage achieved by expanded unemployment insurance.

And yet, in classic Times fashion, the piece supplemented this serious, data-driven analysis with stunningly lazy and dishonest mischaracterizations of the US political system, ones that get repeated enough to sound reasonable, but only because most reporters seem to lack the energy or interest to actually consult reality.

Blaming the victim

To start, after laying out the trajectory of the pandemic welfare state, the Times offered a theory for its demise–lack of support among the US public:

There has been little political will to make policies permanent because they did not emerge from a deeper shift in how Americans view the role of government or the rights of citizens, said Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College who has studied social democracies….

“People did not have an ideological conversion, a new view of what American citizenship could be,” she said. Rather, it was a recognition that during the crisis, “without these things, the entire system could go under.”

This theory is cited uncritically, leaving the reader with the impression that there must be something to this professor’s sweeping statements about US values. But her generalizations more closely resemble the pontifications of a cocktail party guest on the Upper West Side than the studied remarks of a scholar.

Polling provides little support for the idea that Americans oppose a stronger social safety net, and only consented to one during the pandemic out of necessity.

Polling (AP/NORC, 3/29/23) suggests that large majorities of the US public would like to see more spending on education, healthcare, Social Security, infrastructure, assistance to the poor and Medicare.

An AP/NORC poll from March, for instance, found a majority of the public in favor of increasing government spending in key areas, including education (65%), healthcare (63%), Social Security (62%), assistance to the poor (59%), Medicare (58%) and assistance for childcare (53%).

In the particular case of the expanded child tax credit, which the Biden administration instituted in 2021, survey data from Data for Progress demonstrated consistent support for permanent expansion during its time in effect.

And this eagerness to strengthen the welfare state is not just a recent phenomenon; it stretches back decades. Data from the General Social Survey reaching to the 1970s shows high, often overwhelming, support for greater social spending. Even in the case of the lowest support level shown on this graph—Social Security in 1993—support for increasing spending is tied with support for keeping spending the same. Support for cutting spending clocks in at 7%.

Going back to the 1970s, polling has shown solid support for increased social spending. (Source: General Social Survey)

Pew polling likewise reveals long-standing support for other aspects of a robust safety net. In particular, the idea that the government should “guarantee food and shelter to all” polled at 62% during the Reagan years, and 69% twenty years later.

To look at all this data and conclude that the real reason the pandemic era safety net has receded is US public opinion is ludicrous. The professor has things exactly backwards. It’s true that there has not been some sudden shift in favor of strengthening the welfare state. But that’s because the public has wanted to scale it up for decades.

Manufacturing opposition

The Times nevertheless continued along this path:

The United States has historically been opposed to the large government programs and high tax rates seen in much of Europe. As a result, it is unusual among its peers in not providing universal healthcare, entitlements for children and generous cash assistance to the poor, said Robert A. Moffitt, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins.

Saying that the “United States has historically been opposed to…large government programs” is a sleight-of-hand that ignores the fact that US citizens have been strongly supportive of large government programs like Social Security (YouGovAmerica, 2/8/23).

Has the US public historically opposed large government programs and high tax rates? Not in the case of Social Security. Public opinion polling has shown consistent popular support for the program—and for expanding it—throughout its history. A 2022 poll put support for increasing Social Security benefits for all at 77%. And polling has for years shown much more support for raising taxes than cutting benefits—the same 2022 poll found 76% support for financing an increase in benefits by imposing payroll taxes on high-income Americans.

And Social Security is not an anomaly. As the GSS data cited above demonstrates, it is just one example of the American fervor for increased social spending.

Recent polling, moreover, shows extraordinarily favorable views towards existing social programs across the board.

It’s not that no polling exists suggesting skepticism of large government programs. But the unqualified claim of ingrained popular opposition to these programs simply doesn’t fit with the evidence.

An absurd theory of politics

The US public’s major frustrations with the federal tax system are that some corporations and wealthy people don’t pay their fair share (Pew, 4/7/23).

And the same is true when it comes to support for higher taxes. Gallup surveys have repeatedly returned solid majority support for raising taxes on corporations and high earners for years. According to recent polling, most Americans say it bothers them “a lot” that corporations and wealthy people don’t pay their fair share in taxes. Sixty-one percent support raising taxes on households pulling in over $400,000 a year, and 65% support hiking rates on corporations.

It would be one thing if the Times went through this or other polling data and provided evidence backing up its claims. But it doesn’t reference a single poll throughout the piece. It just outsources the thinking to professors, whose credentials mean they must know what they’re talking about. This is lazy reporting. And it leaves the readership with a completely absurd understanding of how politics works, with readers apparently meant to believe in a political process like this:

The general public doesn’t support programs → Government gets rid of programs → Public is fine with that

The reality, on the other hand, is more like:

The general public supports programs → Wealthy people and corporations finance political campaigns and lobbying efforts → Politicians do the bidding of their backers → People lose Medicaid coverage or have their SNAP benefits cut → The public reads that they didn’t really support the programs and that’s why the programs were ended → The public still supports the programs but is now very confused about what is going on

The polarization bogeyman

The Times didn’t stop after this string of lazy and misleading theorizing. Instead, it opted to tack on a couple additional pet theories for the slow death of the pandemic welfare state. First, the paper turned to a classic duo—polarization and gridlock: “Political polarization and congressional gridlock have made a permanent expansion of social benefits more difficult.” Because when Republicans and moderate Democrats both oppose increased social spending, the problem is that the parties don’t agree on enough…. Wait.

To get a serious discussion about why popular social programs weren’t maintained, you had to leave the New York Times and turn to left publications like Jacobin (10/29/21).

In a superficial sense, of course, the idea that gridlock has played a role in preventing a permanent expansion of the safety net is obviously correct. But blaming gridlock is functionally equivalent to saying, The government couldn’t get things done because the parties couldn’t work together to pass things. That’s true, but it doesn’t tell us anything of value.

Polarization, on the other hand, is an utterly uncompelling explanation for the demise of the pandemic welfare state. It’s true that Republicans are fundamentally committed to opposing increased social spending, but Democrats had control of the House, Senate and White House for the first two years of Biden’s presidency. That’s why the American Rescue Plan was able to pass in early 2021, even though no Republican voted for it.

The rest of the Build Back Better agenda, which would have represented a serious expansion of the social safety net, stalled and withered because of opposition within the Democratic party, specifically from conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Jacobin10/29/216/7/228/3/22), not because of polarization.

After moderates joined together to substantially weaken additional Build Back Better legislation over months of negotiations, Manchin basically single-handedly tanked the Build Back Better Act in late 2021, as the New York Times recognized at the time (Daily12/21/21). He then tanked it again in the summer of 2022, only to revive it shortly thereafter in a severely eroded form, culminating in the passage of the renamed Inflation Reduction Act.

Over the whole period, the aspirations of the Build Back Better plan sharply receded—$3.5 trillion in proposed spending fell to $500 billion; expansions to the safety net were largely stripped (Jacobin8/2/22).

To consolidate the expiration of the pandemic welfare state, congressional Democrats at the end of last year passed an omnibus spending bill that included provisions ending continuous coverage for Medicaid recipients and prematurely terminating enhanced SNAP benefits. The bill received bipartisan support in the Senate, passing with 68 votes. It passed more along party lines in the House, with only nine Republican votes. Is this what polarization looks like?

None of this history shows up in the Times piece. The closest the article comes to mentioning the role played by conservative Democrats in the murder of the pandemic welfare state is the following sentence: “Efforts to extend certain programs—or to formally create a more generous safety net, as President Biden laid out in his large social spending bill—have failed.” Notice the passive voice.

Long live incrementalism

But don’t worry, immediately after blaming polarization and gridlock, the Times generously offered a third theory for the pandemic welfare state’s death: “the current economic climate, with high inflation and interest rates.” It then presented the thoughts of a conservative economist:

The politics of trying to make these programs permanent just isn’t there today, not to mention budget constraints. The macro environment has turned in a way that has sort of reaffirmed the fiscal conservatives.

Economist Samuel Hammond, who works for the Koch-funded Lincoln Network, thinks social spending was doomed by the “macro environment.” What do economists who aren’t funded by the Koch brothers think? The New York Times doesn’t say.

Missing is similar space for the commentary of a progressive economist, who might argue that an environment of economic insecurity makes safety net programs more necessary, not less. To avoid stoking inflation, these programs could be offset by, for instance, reversing the Trump tax cuts, which conservative Democrats have prevented the Biden administration from doing. For the Times, this perspective merits no hearing.

To sum up, then, the Times offers a total of three explanations for the death of the pandemic welfare state: 1) The US public doesn’t support an expanded welfare state; 2) polarization and gridlock have made it difficult to do anything; 3) ongoing economic issues tie Congress’s hands. These explanations are variously shallow, unhelpful or flat-out wrong. They are the definition of lazy journalism, but they serve a useful ideological purpose: distract from what’s actually going on, blame the people, and exonerate the Democratic establishment.

The whole point of the Times piece is not to criticize increased social spending. In fact, the authors seem fond of some aspects of the pandemic expansions:

Smaller programs—like food assistance and the child tax credit expansion—patched long-existing holes in the safety net. Now that the patches are being removed, the problems are more apparent.

The point, rather, is to discourage people from thinking about a serious transformation of the safety net, and to gesture towards dull and overly complicated incremental reforms as the only possible option. It’s to instill complacency as a default orientation towards welfare state expansion, something that appeals to a high-earning elite, many of whom consume the Times with self-serving credulity.

The article ends by highlighting areas where unspecified experts “would like to see changes become permanent,” including unemployment insurance, support for families with young children, and health insurance access.

What, though, would the American people like to see? Higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Much more spending on the welfare state. Medicare for All. A Green New Deal. And so on and so on. But don’t expect to read much about that in the New York Times.

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Conor Smyth

Conor Smyth is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied history and political science.

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