Newt Gingrich Co-Opts Millennials' Progressive Ideas on Social Security

ByAlan Smith

Last week, speaking in Las Vegas, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich dropped this gem in his stump speech: “What the poor need is a trampoline so they can spring up, so I am for replacing the safety net with a trampoline.”

Newt Gingrich is right: We need a social safety trampoline, not a net. However, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network — a national network of progressive young people — thought up, coined, and defined that term in 2010. Unless Gingrich decides to shock me (and the rest of the country) by expanding social security and creating new government programs like the innovative young thinkers in the Roosevelt Campus Network envisioned, Gingrich should find another phrase.   

In reality, I suspect that Gingrich is trying to co-opt the term to describe something very different than we had in mind; his description of a social safety trampoline is woefully narrow and the opposite of "uplifting" for Americans in need.     

By this point, most people following politics have already heard Mitt Romney's statement, “I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there." It might not be a gaffe big enough to cost him the Republican nomination, but it does shine a light on an old and tired discussion about how well America does with assisting its very poor.

To quote Jon Stewart: “Being in a net is bad. Whether you are a butterfly, a fish, a trapeze artist, or a poor person. If you are in a net, it’s because something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.” So, if the word has negative connotations, why not just change the word? But when Gingrich agrees with Stewart, we should all realize that it doesn’t go below the surface.  

The phrase was defined when young people across the country joined with the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network to create the Blueprint for Millennial America and the Budget for Millennial America. Thousands of young people discussed the need to create a more flexible social safety net, responsive to 21st century challenges and capable of acting as a spring-board to launch all Americans from their time of most need into high-opportunity roles. And they coined the term "social safety trampoline" to describe this expansion of so-called "entitlement programs" along with the addition of programs like universal pre-K and worker retraining programs aimed at giving all Americans a chance at growing and succeeding with the rest of their communities.  

It’s a fact that millennials across the board have been hit harder by the Great Recession than almost any other group, and we’ve been finding ourselves slipping through holes in the current social safety net. That’s why we know that we need to build something that can support the entire country as we ride out this recession, and can protect us when the next economic storm hits. Millennials are for strengthening Social Security. We are for giving states the tools they need to provide essential services to citizens, even when their budgets are forced to shrink. We are for supporting displaced workers, by building a system to get them back on their feet. We are for giving people the freedom to become social entrepreneurs, grow a community-focused business, or advance their field through a job in the knowledge-based or green economies, secure in the knowledge that a single failure does not mean complete catastrophe.

A safety trampoline should give everyone a chance to bounce further then they could ever jump on their own. It needs to include universal pre-K schooling, job retraining programs, health care coverage for all, and options for expanding access to higher education. To truly accomplish the vision of millennial America, the social safety trampoline needs to provide opportunities previously unimagined for America’s very poor, and be strong enough to help the rest of America as well. 

A social safety trampoline shouldn't do what Gingrich proposes — on his website, Gingrich lays out a plan titled “Unleashing Growth and Innovation to Move Beyond the Welfare State.” His idea is to dismantle the tenants of many current programs; fixing social security by investing in “personal savings accounts," and injecting private options into Medicare and Medicade, for example. His version of a "trampoline” would consist narrowly of job training programs directly linked to unemployment compensation, which are both a part of the current welfare plans that exist in America today. Since Gingrich prefers to speak in stump-speech generalities, it’s impossible to say how much he would spend on increasing those things — but in short, it looks as though his trampoline is more like a black tarp covering a rocky ground. 

If Gingrich wants to keep using our idea of a social safety trampoline, he’s going to have to produce more than the same tired conservative ideas that the private market can fix everything. The reality is, Gingrich, like the rest of the republican nominees, is not concerned about the very poor, the somewhat poor, the working poor, or even the middle class – he just wants to hide that fact by cloaking his own retread ideas in the truly fabulous progressive rhetoric that it took thousands of young people with lots of vision to think up.

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