Editor’s Note: Matthew Diller is the Paul Fuller Professor of Law and Dean of Fordham Law School. Susan Welber is a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society. She focuses on public benefits. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.
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.
For decades, invocation of these pernicious stereotypes has effectively driven the debate about where the line should be drawn between who are the “deserving” and the “undeserving” recipients of government assistance, leading to a debate about “welfare” that is laden with coded racism. These stereotypes were successful in garnering bipartisan support for President Bill Clinton’s effort to “end welfare as we know it” in 1996. Welfare reform is a perfect fit for the current political landscape where the Trump administration has set the bar for false narratives at a new cynical height and been shameless about playing on prejudice to push its agenda.
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.
Congress has returned from recess, and the administration is poised to continue its attack on these critically important programs. If it is successful in rebranding them as “welfare” and in leveraging the false narratives used against welfare back in 1996, then it will succeed in destroying our thin social safety net. Close examination of the administration’s claims is essential.
Held up to the light, the administration’s stated rationale for cutting these programs is revealed to be a sham. The administration’s Council on Economic Advisors issued a report in July declaring “mission accomplished” for the War on Poverty, citing a 3 percent poverty rate. This declaration that poverty has been eradicated is the type of bold diversion needed to avoid the political heat that would emerge from simply chopping budgets for much-needed assistance so soon after enacting massive tax cuts for the wealthy.
Just as denying the effects of climate change has played a key role in justifying the Trump administration’s efforts to eviscerate regulations protecting the environment, poverty denial justifies reductions in spending on people living in poverty.
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.
Next, the council’s report opens into the administration’s push for the imposition of harsh work requirements on recipients of major forms of federal assistance. This also falls apart under scrutiny. Ostensibly, work programs are designed to move recipients into the workforce where they no longer need aid to make do. In reality, work programs rarely achieve this goal. For one, the realities of today’s low-wage labor market, with a federal minimum wage of only $7.25 hour, mean that many working people are living in poverty. Indeed, most non-disabled, non-elderly recipients of SNAP and Medicaid are already working. New work requirements will not motivate employment among those who are already employed. Nor do work requirements remove barriers to work for the millions of people with disabilities who rely on these benefits. Not only is there no need for harsher work requirements, but they do nothing to help people obtain better jobs. Instead, they come with a tangle of bureaucratic requirements that effectively cut off large numbers of people even where they are working or trying to find work.
Looking beyond the rhetoric, work requirements are attractive to the administration as another opportunity to score political points using the dog whistle. For every case closed, the administration can shrink the safety net under the cover of policies that reinforce the very demonizing stereotypes that make the policy feasible in the first place. Indeed, in all likelihood, the administration is focusing on welfare reform precisely to exploit its potential as a dog whistle political issue.
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.
Faced with such a bleak vision, the stereotypes that supported welfare reform in the past may not find traction. Informed by activist movements like Black Lives Matter, there is a greater acknowledgement of the role that Clinton-era policies have played in perpetuating systemic racism. The tropes of past public debates about welfare may not resonate, particularly when applied to food and healthcare. As the debate over healthcare shows, most Americans do not view the ability to go to the doctor as a luxury appropriately reserved for those with sufficient income. At root, it is hard to accept that access to food and medical care so coddles recipients that they develop an inappropriate dependency on benefits as the reference to these forms of aid as “welfare” is intended to suggest.
Get our free weekly newsletter
So far, pushback in Congress and in the courts is promising. Last June, the Senate introduced a Farm Bill that rejected the strict work requirements on SNAP that the House had passed in its bill. Still, the issue will be revisited as the final bill gets negotiated. In June, a federal court vacated the administration’s approval of work requirements on Medicaid recipients in Kentucky. A similar suit was just filed challenging Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas a few weeks ago. It may just be that the weaknesses in the administration’s narrative create an opening for Congress and voters to focus on the facts. In any case, we should hold off on celebrating a victory in the War on Poverty, and instead realize that the declaration of victory is actually an opening salvo in a new War on the Poor.