Conservative ‘compassion’ for the underprivileged blows another fuse

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was among those present to celebrate the release of "reform conservatives'" new policy manifesto on May 22.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

The conservative movement last week unveiled another effort to show that compassion for the downtrodden of society is what really animates its economic policies, which on the surface appear designed to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Unfortunately, what shines through is contempt for the underprivileged -- especially the disabled -- and for the public programs that assist them.

The new effort is “Room to Grow,” a 121-page policy manifesto in 13 parts written by a full lineup of would-be “reform conservatives” including Yuval Levin and Peter Wehner. The product has received respectful attention from progressives desperate for a hands-across-the-chasm moment. They include Danny Vinik of the New Republic, who thinks it’s chockablock with “valid conservative ideas.” Maybe he hasn’t read through the whole thing.

Let’s take a look at the treatment of social insurance and anti-poverty programs in “Room to Grow.” We’ll start with Social Security Disability Insurance, which has become a favorite whipping boy for conservatives assuming -- probably correctly -- that not even liberals understand the program sufficiently well to defend it.


Chapter 7 (“Safety-Net Reforms”) by Scott Winship of the conservative Manhattan Institute has this to say:

“The Social Security Disability Insurance program increasingly supports not only former workers who have suffered career-ending injuries or debilitations, but able-bodied adults with unattractive job prospects. With persistence, it is not difficult to qualify for benefits, and once on the rolls, there are few real incentives to leave.”

That’s a pretty comprehensive pile of inaccurate statements that have been repeatedly debunked. There’s no evidence that the disability program “increasingly supports ... able-bodied adults with unattractive job prospects.”

This is a persistent slander that suggests that disability recipients are just slackers content to stop looking for work. I addressed it in detail more than a year ago. The fact is that the forces underlying the growth in people on the disability rolls are very well understood, and that “able-bodied adults” are not among them. The details are right here.


As for the notion that it’s “not difficult to qualify for benefits,” that’s a “pernicious lie,” as I explained in October, when it was retailed by the slackers at “60 Minutes.” Disability standards are, in fact, stringent, and they’re applied stringently. Two-thirds of all applicants are initially denied, though 10% or so of all applicants win benefits on appeal. All in all, 41% of all applicants end up with checks. Does that sound easy?

Winship goes on to claim that “[i]ncreasingly, families seek and obtain disability status for children with comparatively minor (and often dubious) learning disabilities or behavioral problems.”

This is another fact-free assertion, which has been retailed by a succession of appallingly lazy new reporters and repeatedly debunked by disability experts, yet lives on like a zombie in reasonable-sounding screeds such as “Room to Grow.” Winship attributes this claim to a 2011 study by the American Enterprise Institute, but I couldn’t find any statement in that study that children on disability characteristically had only “minor” or “dubious” impairments. Learning disabilities and behavioral problems, in themselves, aren’t grounds for disability awards, as any expert in the program could have told Winship.

Another self-revealing passage appears in the chapter on tax reform in “Room to Grow,” written by former Treasury Department aide Robert Stein. There, Stein refers to “the greatest fiscal-policy distortion that affects middle-class Americans: the disincentive to raise children caused by Social Security and Medicare.” (We’re indebted to Shawn Fremstad of the Center for Economic and Policy Research for spotting this passage.)


Those programs, Stein wrote, “have ‘crowded out’ the traditional incentive to raise children as a protection against poverty in old age. Today, most workers can reasonably foresee getting enough support from the public retirement system to stay out of poverty when they get older, making it less likely that they will have to call on direct aid -- either in cash or in kind -- from their own children.” Stein is aghast that “the entitlement programs allow those without children to get similar benefits to those with children.”

So there you have the “reform” conservative approach to procreation and child care: You need to have kids so someone will take care of you when you’re old. It’s the family defined almost exclusively as an economic unit. It’s a system that would be familiar to feudal serfs and families in the slave-owning antebellum South. It’s certainly telling that “Room to Grow” mines its economic policies from traditions of such antiquity.

Evidently that’s what it means to be “conservative,” reform or otherwise. As a restatement of conservative values, none of this is very surprising. What’s surprising is that some liberals and progressives take it as “valid.”