Reforming Welfare and Controlling the Poor

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

A supermarket displays stickers indicating they accept food stamps in West New York, New Jersey

After handing out $1.5 trillion in tax breaks to the wealthy, President Trump has followed up with a budget that eviscerates the social safety net. Though the budget only outlines the Trump administration’s priorities, and is unlikely to be largely implemented, it’s clear that the administration would like to further eviscerate the nation’s skimpy excuse for an economic security policy. The budget, after all, represents the administration’s ideal world.

And what’s in this world? Little help for the poor with food, health care, and housing—and more poverty, disease, homelessness, and hunger.

The budget proposes gutting the country’s largest anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps), cutting spending by $213.5 billion over ten years. This would be achieved not only by limiting who is eligible for assistance, but by altering the most basic part of the program, which allows low-income families to purchase food using an Electronic Benefit Transfer card (similar to a debit card). Instead, the government would deliver (Blue Apron-style, according to budget director Mick Mulvaney, who was actually serious) boxes of government commodity food to most SNAP recipients for the value of about half of their benefits. Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes that such a proposal, “would require operational capacity and infrastructure that neither USDA [the Department of Agriculture] nor states now have … [and] puts access to food at risk for one in ten Americans on the faulty assumption that government can buy and provide food more efficiently than millions of American households.”

The president also proposes raising the rents on low-income people receiving housing assistance, as well as a $1 billion cut to the Section 8 housing voucher program, which would cause many thousands to lose their housing assistance entirely. The housing voucher program is already stretched thin, with long waiting lists that span years. The plan also allows for work requirements to be imposed on housing assistance recipients. Either because the administration denies the existence of extreme (or even routinely dismal) climate or because it feels it hasn’t made its contempt for the poor sufficiently clear, the budget also zeroes out funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating assistance to low-income families during the winter months.

The health of the poor is targeted too. Federal Medicaid funding would be cut by $250 billion over the next decade: The remaining federal funds would partly be distributed to states via block grants. Accordingly, states would no longer be restricted by federal rules on what services they must provide recipients. Medicaid care would also be capped per individual. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already has green-lighted state programs that tie work requirements to Medicaid. These cuts and changes to the program would diminish the effects of Medicaid expansion, which enabled many low-income people to finally access health care, especially preventative care and care for chronic conditions like diabetes.

Taken together, these restrictions would be a massive increase in the government’s attempt to judge and control the lives of the poor. Sending boxes of food to SNAP recipients, and limiting their food choice, is a way of restricting what poor people can eat—in the name of “limiting fraud.” Tying work requirements to housing assistance is a way to ensure that only the “worthiest” of the poor can receive assistance. The budget implies that only certain people can—and deserve to—enjoy food, shelter, and health. Such changes would not only materially increase poverty, homelessness, and hunger, but they would make even more suffocating a welfare system that already functions to control the daily lives of the poor. People in poverty would be forced to “contribute” to society in the only way that the administration feels valuable—economically—or suffer.

But that is perhaps the point.

One of the main proponents of welfare-to-work in the 1980s and 1990s, Lawrence Mead, wrote in 1986 that “Even more than income and opportunity, [welfare recipients] need to face the requirements, such as work, that true acceptance in American society requires. To create these obligations, they must be made less free in certain senses rather than more.” Mead’s ideas have underpinned policies that only intensify the racism and classism of our society.

Work requirements exist not only to push people into wage labor, but also to purge the welfare rolls of anyone deemed “underserving”—people who may find it difficult to find work. Indeed, as Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland, recently wrote, “Social scientists should also consider the possibility that the proponents of work requirements or wellness programs have no interest at all in their effectiveness.” After all, most people in poverty, if they can, are already working—and are still poor. And unpaid labor, like caregiving for children or the elderly, is not considered.

If the goal is to reduce poverty, work requirements do not work. If the goal is to have fewer people on the public dole, then work requirements work very well. Using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—the paltry cash welfare program to which welfare was whittled down in the 1996 welfare reform bill—as a model for public benefits only makes sense if one hopes for a similar outcome: fewer people in poverty receiving assistance. Before welfare reform, 68 percent of people living under the poverty line received welfare assistance. Today, it’s only 23 percent. And since, deep poverty—family income below half the poverty line—has worsened.

The principles of this anti-welfare worldview get dicey when one considers that the wealthy, too, receive public money in the form of tax deductions: The top 1 percent of households received more money from federal tax spending in 2016 than the bottom 80 percent combined.

Last year, Congress did not implement many of the changes in the president’s budget. But this year’s budget proposal, even if not implemented, is important as an expression of the administration’s definitive welfare system.

Keeping this in mind, what to do?

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. started a campaign to bring economic justice to the poor in the U.S. The campaign submitted a list of demands—an “economic bill of rights,” which included calls for jobs and housing—to Congress that spring, and then proceeded to occupy the National Mall for six weeks. The National Welfare Rights Movement, begun in 1966, was already demanding a right to welfare for the poor, particularly poor black mothers.

King’s assassination contributed to the dissolution of the Poor People’s Campaign. But a new Poor People’s Campaign, one for 2018, has recently begun.

This spring, cities across the country will host a series of direct actions, culminating in a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. to, yet again, present demands to Congress to better the lives of the poor.

After the release of this budget, a sign of the administration’s priorities, it’s clear such a movement is desperately needed.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

You may also like