Mississippi now leads the nation in the “starve the beast” approach to governance with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves as champion of the movement.
The beast is government. The approach starves the beast by cutting funds. The appeal is that if government grows smaller, personal freedoms increase.
It sounds pretty good, and works pretty good on the campaign trail, too. Few speak out for higher taxes and more government. To no one’s surprise, a mailer praising Reeves smacked of preparation for a 2019 bid to be governor.
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There is another side to the coin, though. The sweet sound of “smaller government” translates to “eliminating services.”
People, speaking broadly, are for “limiting government,” they’re not for “eliminating services.” People like having roads and highways in good repair and troopers to patrol them. They like having forestry and mental health services, state parks and game management, fire trucks that come when called. People like having enough judges to handle caseloads. People would like nothing better than to say, “Yes, as a matter of fact our public schools are very good, very efficient and our teachers are well-paid.”
Reeves and other proponents avoid talking about these aspects of starving the beast. Instead, they steer to the notion of eliminating waste. A major implication is that freeloaders will be kicked off government programs.
Nothing — nothing — warms the heart of a working person more these days than any politician’s promise to reward society’s makers and punish takers. The enduring myth is that there are tens of thousands of individuals and families receiving free housing, health care, education, food, utilities and cell phones while a diminishing number of individuals and families must struggle to pay their own way.
To perpetuate this belief, the Mississippi Legislature has passed laws randomly requiring drug tests for aid applicants and has agreed this year to pay a bundle to a private company to scour Medicaid roles to kick off all the malingerers. The harder lawmakers can be on poor folks, the better for their re-election campaigns.
There are two really big lies in this conversation.
While it’s true that there are too many for whom welfare, in all its forms, has become a way of life, the fact is that lawmakers not only created but repeatedly expanded every entitlement that exists today.
Poor people didn’t write the laws to give them stuff.
Take just one program — food stamps or SNAP — as an example. Forty years ago, recipients were required to pay cash for actual coupons. Based on a calculation, a family could get, say, $100 worth of stamps for $60. But vendors came in promising to ease the muss and fuss and eventually states, including Mississippi, transitioned to EBT cards that are auto-loaded monthly. They work just like bank debit cards, except the state deposits the money.
So lie No. 1 is that lawmakers are powerless against entitlements. If lawmakers wanted to stop program abuses, they could. Successive generations of lawmakers — Republican and Democrat — created benefit programs. You can look it up. The free cell phone program was begun when George H.W. Bush was president.
Lie No. 2 is that people receiving benefits are doing so by choice and are loving every minute of it. If so, why isn’t everyone quitting their jobs to move into public housing? Why aren’t people flocking to retirement homes where Medicaid will pay for life’s essentials — food, shelter and health care?
The truth is that government money spent in aid programs is part and parcel of the economy. Landlords benefit. Utilities benefit. Grocers benefit. Hospitals and clinics benefit. Take “welfare” out and the state and federal economies collapse. Maybe that’s not good, but it’s true.
Another truth, and a big one, is that there are jobs available. Mississippi’s unemployment rate was down to 5 percent for April, which is lower than it was in the crisis year 2008, but just one source — mississippiworks.com — still lists 39,000 open positions. People who are able in body and mind can find work. It might not be ideal or desirable work, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 6.5 percent increase in American jobs during the next seven years.
There is, of course, no way to take politics and political pandering out of the discussion about jobs versus welfare. If there were, however, some truths would become apparent and solutions would be much easier to find.
The beast isn’t big government. The “beast” is continuing to feed the myths about the causes and cures.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.