Once he’s done delivering hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the idle rich, Donald Trump hopes to take food and medical care away from the working poor.
Earlier this year, the third item on the president’s legislative agenda appeared to be an overhaul of America’s infrastructure. But congressional Republicans never had much appetite for investing in new public goods (except, of course, for those that can be used to kill people overseas). And now that they’ve added $1.5 trillion to the deficit for their potential regressive tax cuts, rebuilding the nation’s bridges is a total nonstarter on Capitol Hill.
This is fine with the president. Trump outsourced his legislative agenda to the GOP leadership on day one. And there’s no sign that he has the energy or ambition to take back the reins now. Paul Ryan hopes to use his party’s starvation of “the beast” as an excuse for starving low-income children — and Trump is happy to oblige. As The Wall Street Journal reports:
As Republicans near the finish line on a long-sought tax overhaul, President Donald Trump has committed them to taking up a welfare-revamp fight next … The president didn’t offer specifics about which of the dozens of welfare programs he was seeking to change, or how. But congressional Republicans who have been pushing him for months to pursue the issue have proposed layering tougher work requirements on beneficiaries of programs such as food stamps, which are used by around 43 million Americans, and the cash benefit known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is received by around 3.5 million people.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is signaling that it will allow Republican-led states to begin requiring drug tests for all food-stamps recipients, and imposing work requirements on Medicaid applicants. Earlier this week, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker announced a plan to drug-test all able-bodied, low-income people seeking nutritional assistance from the state’s FoodShare program.
Some Republicans will frame these “welfare reforms” as fiscal necessities. Some liberals, meanwhile, will decry them as the inhumanly cruel price of the Trump tax cuts. But both these claims are dubious. For the moment, neither the president nor congressional Republicans look interested in slashing Medicare or Social Security in a midterm election year. So long as this remains the case, the GOP’s attack on the safety net can’t be credibly described as a crusade for deficit reduction. Even if Republicans succeed in significantly scaling back assistance to the poor, it will have a minuscule impact on the nation’s long-term fiscal health. The United States simply doesn’t spend a lot of money caring for its least-fortunate citizens.
The GOP isn’t compelled to wage war on the poor for fiscal reasons, then, but for ideological and political ones. Some conservatives are genuinely, morally opposed to the state transferring resources to the indigent. And as a political matter, emphasizing the turpitude of America’s poor is a useful tool for directing (white) middle-class resentment downward. In this sense, the “welfare reform” push might actually compensate for one of the tax bill’s nonmaterial costs: In their flamboyant regressivity, the Trump tax cuts risked provoking populist anger toward the rich; immediately shifting the national conversation to the parasitic poor helps channel that rage elsewhere.
“Does anyone want welfare reform?” Trump asked a crowd of supporters in Missouri last week. “I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all.”
The push to drug-test food-stamps recipients is the clearest indication that “welfare reform” is less about reducing the debt than punishing the poor. There is little-to-no evidence that recipients of state aid use illegal drugs at a higher rate than the general population. During Florida’s short-lived experiment with indiscriminately drug-testing TANF applicants, just 2 percent tested positive — a result that suggested TANF recipients were 4 times less likely to have illicit substances in their bloodstreams than the average Floridian. Ultimately, the cost of administering these drug tests cost the Sunshine State about $46,000 more than it saved in withheld benefits.
There is no fiscal argument for making indigent mothers pee into a cup before providing them with food aid or cash assistance. And the policy case is no easier to understand. The drug most easily identified in such tests is marijuana, a substance that is demonstrably less harmful and habit-forming than alcohol, and one that will soon be legal in seven states. How, precisely, is the public interest served by denying impoverished children access to food because their parents recently smoked a joint?
The case for imposing stringent work requirements on TANF and Medicaid recipients is similarly weak. The TANF program already has work requirements. And anyway, given conservatives’ valorization of traditional gender roles, it’s a bit odd that they’re so scandalized by the thought of a low-income woman using cash assistance to be a stay-at-home mom. Welfare in the United States began as a means of enabling widows to provide for their children without entering the workforce. It wasn’t until nonwhite mothers became eligible for state aid that the right became perturbed by the thought of the government enabling women to remain in the domestic sphere.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Medicaid recipients are gainfully employed — and many who aren’t are elderly, children, or disabled. Others might be taking time out of the workforce to care for their children, or an elder — or else, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. As Harry Stein of the Center for American Progress has noted:
A 2016 study of state Medicaid rules used employment data to show that workers in states with generous Medicaid programs were more likely to transition to new jobs and move into fields with higher wages, while changes that reduced Medicaid eligibility made workers less likely to switch jobs and more likely to concentrate in lower-wage sectors.
Beyond the humanitarian case for the wealthiest nation in human history to ensure that none of its children suffers from malnutrition, there’s a large body of evidence that providing low-income families with food and cash assistance pays dividends for the broader economy. The food-stamps program was introduced in some areas of the U.S. in 1961, but didn’t become available in all regions of the country until 1975. By comparing data on the life outcomes of low-income children who benefited from the program in the 1960s to those of similar children who did not, economists have found that access to food stamps made kids healthier — and more likely to be employed — later in life. In other words: Food stamps seem to grow the supply-side of the economy, by expanding the labor force.
A separate 2015 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that direct, unconditional cash assistance to low-income families with small children was associated with higher educational attainment and employment rates for those kids by age 25. Ironically, the study suggested that those handouts improved outcomes, in part, by fostering the very “family values” that Republicans often champion as poverty’s panacea: Greater family income correlated with decreased marital stress and increased parental involvement and supervision. Thus, families that received unconditional cash payments, in NBER’s study, reported significantly better parent-child relationships than those who did not.
But the merits of America’s anti-poverty programs are as irrelevant to Republicans as their modest fiscal cost. Welfare reform isn’t about fixing the debt, or growing the labor force. It’s about flattering the ideological prejudices of Republican donors — and reminding the party’s voters which parasitic social class they’re supposed to hate.
“The person who is not working at all — and has no intention of working at all — is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off,” Trump said at his rally in Missouri last week. “So we’re going to go into welfare reform.”