He proclaimed “it’s morning in America,” on a political commercial reassuring citizens the country’s best days still lay ahead. Responding to four gloomy years of oil shortages and the American hostage taking in Iran, the nation enthusiastically turned from Jimmy Carter’s malaise to genial Ronald Reagan’s smile.
Reagan had campaigned hard against what he viewed as an intrusive and bloated Federal bureaucracy. After his landslide victory in November, 1980, President Reagan, repeated that theme in his inaugural address remarking, “it is no coincidence that our present troubles . . .are from . . .the growth of government.” The new president added that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” Conservatives and Blue Dog Democrats were giddy to see federal entitlement programs cut, or at least significantly pared down.
In the spirit of shrinking domestic spending, the Reagan Administration shepherded Congressional bills to cut services to poor and disabled Americans. Federal education programs went under the ax, as well as reductions of Medicaid, and Social Security. These entitlements endured steep cuts by restricting eligibility, and removing many from the federal rolls.
Mr. Reagan operated under the theory of “trickle down economics,” a belief that tax cuts for the rich would naturally benefit lower income brackets. New economic opportunities would emerge as reinvested wealth would find its way to employing the lower classes. Also known as “supply-side” economics, Reagan proceeded to slash not only taxes on the rich, but also loosened federal regulations on businesses, environmental protection, and opening federal lands to private interests.
As Reagan’s personal hero, Calvin Coolidge, once stated, “the business of America is business.”
But the anticipated economic outcomes didn’t quite pan out. Though social programs saw budgets slashed, military spending spiked, going to high ticket stealth technology development, and the fated Strategic Defense Initiative. The rich did become richer, but no benefit managed to trickle down. With relaxed oversight the New York Stock Exchange finally crashed in 1987 due to eased SEC regulations, and a myriad of shady practices that benefitted insiders. One of the more egregious examples of this malfeasance concerned the Savings and Loan fiasco of 1986.
And the real cost for Americans? Middle class taxes bailed out insolvent, shady S&L’s, while at the same time reduced social programs inflicted real hardship upon the least among us. Congressional passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1981 was one such law. This bill mirrored one implemented earlier in California when Reagan served as governor of that state. The law essentially “streeted” mental health patients residing in psychiatric hospitals across the country.
In explanation, the Reagan Administration argued that newer and better psychotropic drugs would offset the need for in-patient treatment, and those who still needed in-patient mental health care could be looked after by local communities and families.
However, local communities and families did not, or could, not step up.
Today we see the fallout of the Mental Health Systems Act in real time. Among the homeless are those hard hit by financial trouble, the mentally ill, the dispossessed who endure every season housed in tent encampments, huddled under bridges, seeking refuge in hospital emergency rooms, in public buildings, and sleeping in parks and alleys. Many are veterans, addicts, and untreated victims of assorted psychiatric disorders.
America doesn’t seem able to understand how this massive uptick in homeless populations erupted across the nation. In the richest country in the world Americans are unable and/or unwilling to demand our political leaders find solutions. No one seems keen to fight the disdain, and stigma of permitting homeless shelters anywhere, particularly near residential areas. The failure is visible in every urban area in the nation. And if there is anyone to blame for this slow-motion humanitarian disaster, look no further than the so-called “Reagan Revolution.”
The kicker is that the Reagan Administration did not save a cent despite entitlement cuts. Instead of reducing expenditures the federal deficit tripled from $930 billion in 1981 to $2.8 trillion by 1989.
So much for theories.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley also has written two historical plays: “Clay” exploring the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” a study of American slavery and racism.