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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Republican Senate candidates have never settled on a unifying theme throughout the 2014 campaign, but they all generally agree on one point: Americans should be less dependent on the federal government.

In a recently unearthed recording from 2013, Iowa state senator Joni Ernst illustrated this position in unusually stark terms.

“What we have to do a better job of is educating not only Iowans, but the American people that they can be self-sufficient. They don’t have to rely on the government to be the do-all, end-all for everything they need and desire, and that’s what we have fostered, is really a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them,” Ernst explained.

“It’s exponentially harder to remove people once they’ve already been on those programs,” she later added, before again lamenting that “we rely on government for absolutely everything.”

Ernst is hardly alone in her conviction that we must sharply cut the social safety net before it becomes “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) infamously warned.

But an Economic Policy Institute report released last week contains good news for the GOP. There’s an easy way to dramatically reduce Americans’ dependence on the social safety net, while saving billions in the process: raising the minimum wage.

The report, authored by EPI economic analyst David Cooper, finds that boosting the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour — the level proposed by the Democratic-backed Fair Minimum Wage Act — would allow 1.7 million American workers to stop relying on public assistance programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps), or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (also known as welfare), among others. That would reduce the amount the government spends on safety net programs by at least $7.6 billion per year. Additionally, safety net programs would save 24 cents for every additional dollar in wages paid to workers affected by the minimum wage hike.

Minimum Wage infographic

In addition to easing the burden on the safety net, a $10.10 minimum wage would lift millions out of poverty, and would be unlikely to hurt job growth (according to academic studies and the informed opinions of hundreds of economists). Plus, in addition to being good policy, raising the minimum wage would also be very good politics. So Ernst must be all for it, right?

Wrong. The Iowa Republican not only opposes raising the federal minimum wage, but actually supports eliminating it altogether. Instead of raising workers’ wages to levels where they no longer need government assistance to get by, she’d prefer to slash the safety net like the hogs she castrated as a girl. Most (though not all) of her fellow Republicans agree.

So given that the GOP is unlikely to let a minimum-wage hike pass through Congress, and that President Obama is unlikely to sign a budget that shrinks government assistance programs to a size where Grover Norquist can drown them, for the time being, Americans will have to live with the unsatisfying status quo.

Photo: Annette Bernhardt via Flickr

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