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Trump’s all-out war on the poor

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Trump has launched an all-out attack on the poor. The tax reform bill demonstrated clearly that Trump and Republicans in Congress favor the rich and corporate interests over the middle class and the poor. Not a big surprise. But tax reform was the “nice” version of class warfare, the proposed budget cuts to nearly every social welfare program imaginable show that Republicans are determined to win a scorched earth-type war against the poor. Not to fight a war against poverty, but to crush the poor. 

The proposed cuts to HUD, Medicaid, and SNAP (“food stamps”), coupled with the particularly cruel idea of replacing food stamps with a government commodity program, show just how heartless Republicans can be when in control of the entire government.

{mosads}As a political salvo in the ongoing war against poor people, Trump’s budget proposal is arguably not different in kind from other attacks on the poor. Welfare reform, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, came after a sustained political and intellectual attack on the poor centered on the idea that the poor were choosing not to work. Twenty plus years later, traditional cash welfare is but a shadow of its former self and across the country SNAP is the only support reaching many poor families.


Republican politicians tout welfare reform as a success, nevermind that the demise of traditional welfare has pushed even more Americans into extreme poverty. The push to make the thin remaining reeds of the welfare state — public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps — also tied to work requirements almost seems a natural policy move. But Trump’s attacks on programs serving the poor are not really about the poor. 

As poverty scholars have pointed out, the rules that govern the welfare state and the level of support the poor receive are not matters necessarily, or even primarily, about the poor. Instead, they serve as warnings for the rest of us.

Stringent bureaucratic practices, routine invasions of poor people’s privacy, and inadequate levels of support that leave the poor without their basic needs together tell the non-poor, “you better not become poor” and “you are better than the poor.”

Attacks on welfare and on public benefits let the struggling middle class know that at least they are not poor, that their struggles — and the fact that they struggle — makes them better than the undeserving poor. Making it harder for the poor to get housing vouchers and denying people the right to pick the food they want to eat by switching from EBT cards to commodity delivery does little to address poverty but it does send a powerful, morally smug message to those who do not need assistance.

Of course, that is not all that is going on. Attacks on the poor also serve as racially coded appeals to low-income whites who feel threatened by the civil rights and economic gains of minorities over the past fifty plus years. When Trump expressed surprise during a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus last year that not all welfare recipients were black, he was not only revealing his own ignorance but also expressing a version of the popular assumption that poverty is primarily an issues for minorities. The truth is far more complicated: while blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are disproportionately poor, the majority of people below the poverty line are white. Attacking the poor both provides a way for politicians to attack minorities without actually saying as much and also serves to distract voters from the real economic issues of our time.

Just as Trump’s draconian approach to immigration has forced advocates into the defensive position of highlighting “good immigrants” and the ways in which immigration benefits the country, so too the rhetorical claim that we need to limit benefits in the interest of “workforce development” forces those who care about the poor to focus on the merits of the working poor.

What is lost in this defensive posture, however necessary it is for anti-poverty advocates pushed into a corner by Republican political dominance, is that providing food, housing, and medical care to the poor is the humane thing to do. Independent of whether the poor are deserving or undeserving, we are a better nation if we build up, rather than tear down, the social safety net. 

Trump’s war against the poor may not be different in kind from previous political moments, but it is different in scale and intensity. Suddenly all programs seem to be in jeopardy and the prospect that the poor might be pushed even further to the edges of society is all too real. For politicians proud of their “Christian” values, Republicans seem intent on a firm separation between the values of their faith and their policies towards the poor.

When introducing the idea that SNAP benefits would be converted into boxes of commodities, Mick Mulvaney likened the proposal to Blue Apron, a service that provides partially prepared meals catering to the tastes and “needs” of the rich. Mulvaney’s analogy shows just how out of touch the Trump administration is with both the lives of the poor and with the country’s anti-poverty programs they now direct.

With passage of the tax reform bill followed by a successful strategy to move the conversation to an invented need to impose work requirements on the poor, Trump and Republicans are winning their war on the poor. But as the left regroups, responses to these attacks should take a broad view. Republican attacks on the poor are ultimately only partially about the poor. They are instead part of an effort to obscure the singular economic importance of regressive, pro-wealthy policies in the rise in income and wealth inequality over the past three decades.

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.

Tags Donald Trump Ezra Rosser Food Stamps Mick Mulvaney Poverty Public housing Welfare Working poor

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