What would Ronald Reagan do?

Jeff vonKaenel

What would Ronald Reagan do? We frequently hear this rhetorical question from the Republican side of the aisle. The answer: Former President Reagan’s policies caused dramatic decreases in social services, an increase in income inequality, tax cuts for the rich, and less aid for the poor and unemployed.

But the irony is that when Reagan’s family was in dire need, the government bailed it out. During the Great Depression, Reagan’s father and his brother worked for the U.S. government’s Work Projects Administration, the controversial program designed to be the employer of last resort. When Reagan’s family needed help, they turned to these New Deal projects. These are the very kinds of programs that the Republicans who cite Reagan’s legacy are now trying to kill.

Reagan remained supportive of the New Deal until General Electric Co. hired him to be a spokesman for its conservative political views. As part of GE’s campaign to change the public’s mind about unions and to develop a less expensive, more docile workforce, it hired this washed-up actor to host its weekly TV show and visit its factories. Reagan’s views became more conservative. Rather than seeing unemployment as a systemic problem, he believed something was wrong with the people who could not find work. When running for governor of California, he repeated false stories about people on welfare living high on the hog and driving Cadillacs. In office, he continuously slashed welfare and other benefits aimed at the poor.

While it may make good politics, it is wrong to leave people high and dry at a time when they most need help. Unfortunately, this is what California’s new budget will do, cutting off welfare payments to recipients who cannot find work after two years. It is inhumane to cut off benefits during a time when we have double-digit unemployment and college-educated people competing for minimum-wage jobs. The high unemployment rate during the Depression was not because Americans were lazy. And the current high unemployment rate is not because Americans collectively decided to become slugs at around the same time that the housing bubble burst.

The government raised taxes on the wealthy to help Ronald Reagan’s family during their time of need. We should raise taxes again so that we can put our unemployed citizens back to work. The government should bring back WPA programs like the ones that put Reagan’s family to work in the 1930s. It helped them keep their self-respect; it helped build up our nation’s infrastructure. We should support political candidates who will take the necessary steps to restore our safety net. We should vote for Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increases this November. At one time, even Ronald Reagan believed that the government should play a role in taking care of the neediest among us.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.