Trump Is Using “Welfare” Dog Whistles to Come After the Entire Working Class

Rebecca Vallas, Talk Poverty April 26, 2018

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a coal miner's protective hat while addressing his supporters during a rally at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, WV. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Tues­day night, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an exec­u­tive order that sums up how lit­tle he under­stands about pover­ty in America.

The order, titled Reduc­ing Pover­ty in Amer­i­ca by Pro­mot­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ty and Eco­nom­ic Mobil­i­ty,” car­ries lit­tle weight by itself. It directs a broad range of fed­er­al agen­cies to review pro­grams serv­ing low-income peo­ple and make rec­om­men­da­tions on how they can make the pro­grams hard­er to access, all under the guise of wel­fare reform.”

The order’s main pur­pose appears to be smear­ing pop­u­lar pro­grams in an effort to make them eas­i­er to slash — in part by redefin­ing wel­fare” to encom­pass near­ly every pro­gram that helps fam­i­lies get by. To that end, the order reads as follows:

The terms wel­fare” and pub­lic assis­tance” include any pro­gram that pro­vides means-test­ed assis­tance, or oth­er assis­tance that pro­vides ben­e­fits to peo­ple, house­holds, or fam­i­lies that have low incomes (i.e., those mak­ing less than twice the Fed­er­al pover­ty lev­el), the unem­ployed, or those out of the labor force.

Redefin­ing every­thing from the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP, for­mer­ly known as food stamps) to Med­ic­aid to Unem­ploy­ment Insur­ance to child care assis­tance as wel­fare” has long been part of con­ser­v­a­tives’ play­book, as my col­league Shawn Frem­stad has point­ed out. The term has a deeply racial­ly charged his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States, evok­ing decades of racial stereo­types about pover­ty and the peo­ple who expe­ri­ence it. By using dog-whis­tle terms like wel­fare, Trump is erect­ing a smoke­screen in the shape of Pres­i­dent Reagan’s myth of the wel­fare queen” — so we don’t notice that he’s com­ing after the entire work­ing and mid­dle class.

The fact is, we don’t have wel­fare in Amer­i­ca any­more. What’s left of America’s tat­tered safe­ty net is mea­ger at best, and — con­trary to the claim in Trump’s exec­u­tive order that it leads to gov­ern­ment depen­dence” — it’s light-years away from enough to live on.

Take the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram. SNAP pro­vides an aver­age of just $1.40 per per­son per meal. Most fam­i­lies run out of SNAP by the third week of the month because it’s so far from enough to feed a fam­i­ly on.

Then there’s hous­ing assis­tance, which reach­es just 1 in 5 eli­gi­ble low-income fam­i­lies. Those left with­out help can spend up to 80 per­cent of their income on rent and util­i­ties each month, while they remain on decades-long wait­lists for assis­tance.

And then there’s Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF), the pro­gram that replaced Aid to Fam­i­lies with Depen­dent Chil­dren in 1996 when Con­gress famous­ly “[end­ed] wel­fare as we know it.” Few­er than 1 in 4 poor fam­i­lies with kids get help from TANF today — down from 80 per­cent in 1996. In fact, in sev­er­al states, kids are more like­ly to be placed in fos­ter care than receive help from TANF.

Fam­i­lies who do receive TANF are lucky if the ben­e­fits even bring them halfway to the aus­tere fed­er­al pover­ty line. For exam­ple, a Ten­nessee fam­i­ly of 3 can only receive a max­i­mum of $185 per month, or a lit­tle over $6 a day.

Yet TANF is the pro­gram Trump is hold­ing up as a mod­el — hail­ing 1996 wel­fare reform” as a wild suc­cess — despite the fact that TANF has proven an abject fail­ure both in terms of pro­tect­ing strug­gling fam­i­lies from hard­ship and in help­ing them get ahead.

In par­tic­u­lar, this exec­u­tive order directs agen­cies to ramp up so-called work require­ments” — harsh time lim­its on assis­tance for cer­tain unem­ployed and under­em­ployed work­ers — which were at the heart of the law that cre­at­ed TANF. But decades of research since TANF was enact­ed show that work require­ments do not help any­one work.

Make no mis­take: Push­ing for work require­ments” is at the core of the con­ser­v­a­tive strat­e­gy to rein­force myths about pover­ty in Amer­i­ca. That the poor” are some stag­nant group of peo­ple who just don’t want to work.” That any­one who wants a well-pay­ing job can snap her fin­gers to make one appear. And that hav­ing a job is all it takes to not be poor.

But in real­i­ty, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are work­ing two, even three jobs to make ends meet and pro­vide for their fam­i­lies. Half of Amer­i­cans are liv­ing pay­check to pay­check and don’t have even $400 in the bank. And near­ly all of us—70 per­cent—will turn to some form of means-test­ed assis­tance, like Med­ic­aid or SNAP, at some point in our lives.

Trump claims his exec­u­tive order is intend­ed to elim­i­nate pover­ty traps.” But if he knew any­thing about pover­ty — aside from what he’s learned on Fox News—he’d know the real pover­ty trap is the min­i­mum wage, which has stayed stuck at $7.25 an hour for near­ly a decade. That’s well below the pover­ty line for a fam­i­ly of two — and not near­ly enough to live on. There isn’t a sin­gle state in the coun­try in which a min­i­mum-wage work­er can afford a one-bed­room apart­ment at mar­ket rate. Many low-wage work­ers are forced to turn to pro­grams like Med­ic­aid and SNAP to make ends meet, because wages aren’t enough.

If Trump were real­ly try­ing to pro­mote self-suf­fi­cien­cy” — a con­cept he clear­ly doesn’t think applies to the mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires to whom he just gave mas­sive tax cuts—he’d be all over rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. In fact, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage just to $12 would save $53 bil­lion in SNAP alone over a decade, as more low-wage work­ers would sud­den­ly earn enough to feed their fam­i­lies with­out nutri­tion assistance.

Yet there’s no men­tion of the min­i­mum wage any­where in Trump’s order to pro­mote oppor­tu­ni­ty and eco­nom­ic mobility.”

Which brings us back to the real pur­pose of this exec­u­tive order: divide and conquer.

Trump and his col­leagues in Con­gress learned the hard way last year how pop­u­lar Med­ic­aid is when they tried to cut it as part of their quest to repeal the Afford­able Care Act. And it’s not just Med­ic­aid that Amer­i­cans don’t want to see cut. Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ing­ly oppose cuts to SNAP, hous­ing assis­tance, Social Secu­ri­ty dis­abil­i­ty ben­e­fits, home heat­ing assis­tance, and a whole slew of pro­grams that help fam­i­lies get by — par­tic­u­lar­ly if these cuts are to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions. What’s more, as polling by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress shows, Amer­i­cans are less like­ly to vote for a can­di­date who backs cuts.

By con­trast, vast majori­ties of Amer­i­cans across par­ty lines want to see their pol­i­cy­mak­ers raise the min­i­mum wage; ensure afford­able, high-qual­i­ty child care; and even enact a job guar­an­tee to ensure every­one who is able and wants to work can find a job with decent wages. These sen­ti­ments extend far beyond the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base to include majori­ties of Inde­pen­dents, Repub­li­cans, and even Trump’s own voters.

That’s why rebrand­ing these pro­grams as wel­fare is so impor­tant to Trump’s agen­da. Rather than heed the wish­es of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, Trump’s plan is — yet again — to tap into racial ani­mus and ugly myths about aid pro­grams in order to pit strug­gling work­ers against one oth­er. That way, he can hide his con­tin­ued betray­al of the for­got­ten men and women” for whom he famous­ly pledged to fight.

This arti­cle first appeared in Talk Pover­ty.

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