Trump preaches honest work...for the poor

April 17, 2018

The Republicans' crude attempts to finish off the social safety net are despicable, but don't expect a lot of opposition from the Democrats--since they helped start the job.

AS FEDERAL investigators sift through the evidence of Donald Trump's criminal history seized from his lawyer's office, Trump and fellow Republicans are racing to pull off what could be remembered as their last big score: Destroying what's left of the social safety net to pay for billionaire tax cuts and Pentagon boondoggles.

These con artists are calling their plan "Welfare Reform 2.0"--and, like the original scam run by Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Newt Gingrich in 1996, it relies on the false claim that work requirements lift people out of poverty by ending their supposed dependence on "big government."

Surveys show that these patronizing and racially coded claims have far less credibility with the public then they did 20 years ago. But it will take protests, not polls, to stop Trump and his gang of thieves from getting away with this historic attack.


ON APRIL 10, Trump signed an executive order calling on federal agencies to force more recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and public housing to work for these benefits--and to force those already working to work more.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

Two days later, House Republicans pushed a plan inside the 2018 Farm Bill that will expand "workfare" requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)--better known as food stamps--by eliminating exemptions for people living in states with high unemployment and for parents of children over five years old.

In other words, the president who campaigned on a promise to expand childcare programs is now looking to take away food from mothers who don't work because they lack access to affordable childcare.

These workfare proposals are impossible for many people to fulfill. But that's the point. Trump's goal isn't to reduce poverty, but to reduce spending on poverty.

That's clear from the proposed budget released by the White House in February, which calls for taking $17 billion from SNAP in 2019--a reduction of 22 percent--and cutting it by over $200 billion over the next decade.

The administration budget also calls for drastic cuts to public housing and the Section 8 program--"at a time when public housing faces a $40 billion backlog of capital needs," according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.


THESE ATTACKS on social programs are being promoted by an array of politicians and think tanks owned by billionaire ideologues like the Koch Brothers, with lies as bald-faced and outlandish as anything Trump has come up with about voter fraud or the size of his inauguration crowd.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), for example, had the nerve to claim in February that imposing work requirements would be good for Medicaid recipients' health because "higher earnings are positively correlated with longer lifespan." As Christopher Baum wrote for Socialist Worker at the time:

Few would dispute that people with more money can generally expect to live longer and healthier lives--nor that the unemployed tend to suffer disproportionately from physical and mental health issues.

But to say that having a job makes the difference--as opposed to, say, having reliable access to "high-quality health care" because of greater financial resources--is absurd even by the debased standards of the Trump administration.

Another lie pushed by the right is that recipients of public assistance don't work. In fact, as Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute explained to the Washington Post:

The truth is that a majority of poor people who can work, do work--more than 60 percent. The problem is that their jobs don't pay enough. People who are on public assistance and don't work are not choosing between a six-figure salary or staying at home. Taking a low-paying job gets no one closer to economic stability.

But the big lie of "welfare reform" is and always has been that fewer people receiving government assistance is somehow evidence of fewer people needing government assistance.

The truth is more obvious and more brutal: Fewer people receiving government assistance means more people being denied government assistance.


TRUMP ADMINISTRATION officials, echoing talking points from Koch Brothers propaganda firms, claim that work requirements in Kansas, Maine and Alabama have lifted people out of poverty. But their only evidence for these claims are suspiciously incompetent statistical comparisons and declines in welfare caseloads.

As Baum argues, workfare programs benefit big business, not only by allowing for more tax cuts by trimming the rolls of social programs, but also by creating an even more precarious and therefore exploitable workforce:

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation report on Medicaid work requirements, roughly 60 percent of non-elderly Medicaid enrollees already have jobs today. Consider how their situation may be about to change.

Under current law, if they lose their jobs or give them up, their medical coverage will continue without any changes. For people living at or below the poverty line, this is a crucial safety net--literally a matter of life and death for some.

With a work requirement scheme, however, enrollees have no such safety net. If they lose their job, they stand to lose their health care coverage as well, with potentially catastrophic consequences. This gives the employer a powerful hold over them.

Work requirements also advance an obvious ideological agenda of portraying recipients of government programs as good-for-nothing "takers" of taxpayer dollars--as opposed to those glorious "makers" in corporate boardrooms who generously hire people to slave away for them for $11.50 an hour.

In a country built on the backs of enslaved Africans, anti-worker ideology is always spiked with anti-Black ideology. Campaigns against social welfare programs are generally dripping from head to toe with vile stereotypes of supposed Black ignorance and laziness--even though most recipients are usually white.

House Republican leader Paul Ryan gave a typical example of this slime in 2014, when he decried a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work."

Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman described in Jacobin how this commonplace message successfully stigmatized welfare in both white and Black communities:

A number of studies have found that people on welfare, Black Americans included, feel that people take advantage of the system and receive benefits when they should not. Here, the constant demonization of people on welfare has had an effect on welfare recipients themselves. While attributing their own use to structural factors such as discrimination and joblessness, they attribute others' use of the system to laziness (importantly, however, this suspicion does not carry over into political support for attacks on welfare state, which are consistently opposed by people receiving benefits).


AS THE phrase "Welfare Reform 2.0" implies, the model for these vicious right-wing attacks is the law that Democrats championed in 1996 as the key to Bill Clinton's successful re-election: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).

This legislation replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program created during the New Deal with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Tristin Adie summarized the significance of this change for SocialistWorker.org on the law's 20th anniversary:

For 60 years, AFDC had provided federal aid to recipients who met income eligibility requirements, through matching grants for funds spent by the states. Whether the number of recipients was 200 or 2 million, AFDC guaranteed that people who needed assistance would receive it...

This notion was done away with by TANF. States were given a block grant of money to use as they saw fit...If these funds couldn't meet the needs of the total number of people who were eligible, so be it. Guaranteed assistance to all who were eligible was out the window.

TANF funding has remained fixed since 1996, which amounts to a 30 percent cut after inflation is taken into account. The funding levels remained fixed even in 2008, when the country went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and official unemployment rate reached double digits.

At the signing ceremony for PRWORA, Clinton declared that the new law "gives us a chance we haven't had before to break the cycle of dependency that has existed for millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the world of work."

Clinton said this, Adie writes, "even though nearly one-third of welfare recipients prior to 1996 were women who were either disabled themselves, or were caring for disabled children. He ignored reports from his own Department of Health and Human Services that an estimated 1.1 million children would be pushed into poverty."

The results have been disastrous for poor people. Some 23 percent of poor families with children received benefits in 2014--down from 68 percent in 1996. And that 23 percent receives a pittance--as little as $170 a month for a family of three in Mississippi. Not a single state provides TANF assistance that is even half of the official poverty line.

As a result, the number of Americans who live in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2 per day, has increased by 159 percent--a total of 1.65 million households since Clinton boasted about all the meaning and dignity he was giving to poor people.


NOW REPUBLICANS see a historic opportunity to carry through the next phase of ending the great social welfare reforms of the 20th century--not because their proposals are popular, but because the Trump presidency has signaled the erosion of all pretense.

In other words: It's looting time until somebody stops them.

To most people, the most logical way to block the Republicans' attack will be to vote for their main opponents, the Democrats, in the hopes that they will win one or both houses of Congress for Democrats this November.

Or there's praying for Trump to be hauled out of the White House in handcuffs.

But the enthusiasm for the November elections, while understandable, ignores the clear history showing that Democrats are also determined to "reform" social welfare programs into oblivion.

Bill Clinton wasn't a historical exception. Barack Obama gutted social spending, and while his apologists claim he was forced to do so by a hostile Republican Congress, the actual history shows that Obama initiated negotiations to gut Social Security and Medicare. It was only Republican fanaticism that stopped them from taking him up on it.

The point is that the millions of people who want to stop Trump's attacks on social programs need to take things into their own hands. The wave of teacher strikes has shown that ordinary people have the collective strength to defeat entrenched Republican power, without having to rely on lousy Democrat half-measures and concessions.

The fight against "Welfare Reform 2.0" needs to bring together the working class revival of those red-state teacher rebellions with the anti-racist politics of the Movement for Black Lives.

That's honest work--and it needs to get started now, not after November 6.

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