Why Congress May Shut Down Trump’s War on the Poor


Dean Matthew Diller co-authored an op-ed in CNN about welfare reform under the Trump administration.

Welfare reform is back, together with its accompanying long-standing racial, paternalist and nativist stereotypes. Historically, these stereotypes centered on the idea that people in need are lazy and morally deficient and, therefore, responsible for their own circumstances. False stereotypes concerning low-income people often track and combine with long-standing racist conceptions of people and communities of color — particularly women of color.

This round, the Trump administration’s goal is to gut what remains of the federal social safety net: SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, federal housing assistance and more. For many families, over the past 20 years during which welfare reform made cash welfare virtually disappear in many parts of the country, the basic nutritional and health supports provided by SNAP and Medicaid have served as the only buffer against the harshest ravages of poverty. As it is, the buffer is modest. A family of three is only eligible for a monthly maximum of about $6 for food a day per person. Federal housing assistance is extraordinarily underfunded. Only one in four families who meet eligibility requirements receives the assistance.

Only the data, much generated by the federal government itself, tell a different story than the council’s report. The official US measure found that 12.7 percent of US residents lived in poverty in 2016, and, though at a nearly 2 percent decline from 2015, poverty among children was 18 percent — still a stunning rate. The council’s declaration that we can wrap up the War on Poverty is based upon an alternative measure that looks at consumption rather than income to conclude that the rate of poverty is at 3 percent. Even if we accept this alternative measure, it is of limited value because it includes the assistance that the administration is seeking to cut. More fundamentally, the conclusion that poverty is dead is inconsistent with other indicators of economic health, such as hunger, homelessness and lack of savings. Look no further than New York City, where almost 60,000 New Yorkers still live in homeless shelters.

Finally, there is another reason the administration’s effort may not succeed. Just as many have drawn the line on immigration at family separation, there may be a willingness to draw the line at ignoring two of the most essential human needs: food and health. If work requirements on these benefits play out like those on cash welfare, SNAP and Medicaid roles will likely decline sharply. Some recipients will indeed increase their employment, but many more will lose essential food and medical care leading to hunger, disease and the potential for permanent disability.


Read full op-ed.


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