Trump administration extends fight against poor

WASHINGTON – President Trump has a special animus toward immigrants, but the children of those crossing our borders are not the only vulnerable people in his sights. His administration is waging a less visible war on our nation’s poorest citizens, with the complicity of its Republican allies in Congress.

We can welcome the fact that the president’s family-separation policy aroused the indignation of a broad empathetic majority. This instinct for compassion and justice should also be mobilized to stop efforts that will, quite literally, take food off the tables of Americans who already have great difficulty making ends meet.

And: Can we please stop using the word “populist” to describe a crowd that would slash programs for the neediest to help finance a deficit-inflating tax giveaway that disproportionately benefits the very wealthiest people in our country? There is nothing populist about transferring money and power to those who already have a great deal of both.

The latest in a series of attacks on programs that have long commanded bipartisan support came last week when the House of Representatives voted 213-211 for a farm bill that would impose new work requirements on recipients of food stamps under the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But SNAP already includes work requirements. Most recipients who don’t receive disability payments and are in their prime work years hold jobs of some kind, or are between jobs. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), estimates the new rules and cuts “would eliminate or reduce food assistance for more than 1 million low-income households with more than 2 million people.”

Supporters of the bill tout its $1 billion a year for new job-placement and training initiatives. This looks like a big number, but it’s a fraction of what a serious national employment strategy would cost. The CBPP estimates that the funding amounts to under $30 per person per month for those who would need an employment program to keep receiving SNAP benefits. The work requirements are also poorly conceived; they would, for example, hurt those whose employers reduce their work hours.

No, this is not about “poverty-fighting,” as House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed. It’s about increasing poverty by throwing people off food stamps, one reason why every House Democrat – they were joined by 20 Republicans – voted against the farm bill.

The Senate takes up its own farm bill this week with bipartisan food stamp provisions that protect benefits and improve administration. What’s essential is resisting amendments that would try to match the House’s meanness.

The House vote came on the same day that the administration released a massive government reorganization plan. Among other things, it would merge the Labor and Education Departments (renamed the “Department of Education and the Workforce”), and push a variety of programs into the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS would get a new name, too, the “Department of Health and Public Welfare.”

Food stamps would shift from the Agriculture Department, which could deprive them of the political support they now enjoy from farm state politicians. And the plan would create a “Council on Public Assistance” with the power to impose the administration’s beloved work requirements across programs, including food stamps and Medicaid.

In principle, reorganizing the federal government and finding ways to make it more efficient are actually reasonable objectives. There are good arguments for rethinking a structure built by accretion over decades. But as is its way, the Trump administration poisoned this effort from the start. It failed to engage in serious conversation with stakeholders, or the opposition party, and it put its ideological goals first.

It’s hard to escape the sense that this is about decimating help for the least fortunate. Given the demonization, and racialization, of the word “welfare,” the HHS rebranding exercise appears to be an attempt to delegitimize all social spending. It’s unlikely this crowd wants to restore the dictionary definition of “welfare” as “well-being.” The Council on Public Assistance looks like a power-grab that deserves to be called the Council to Slash Public Assistance.

Oh yes, and Republicans in Congress have opted in the past – in renaming the Education and Labor Committee, for example – to displace the hallowed word “labor” with “workforce,” which reduces employees to a factor of production.

The family-separation policy dramatized in an especially egregious way the routine cruelty of this administration. It highlighted an approach that targets those who have the fewest resources to defend their interests and their rights. The fight against callousness must be extended across a much broader front.

Email ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. (c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group.

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