Trump Budget Cuts Programs for Poor While Sparing Many Older People

By Yamiche Alcindor

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s spending blueprint seeks to balance the federal budget through unprecedented cuts to programs for poor and working-class families, effectively pitting them against older Americans who would largely escape the budget ax.

In ways large and small, the budget, to be released Tuesday, seeks to curtail spending on poorer recipients of government largess. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known commonly as food stamps, would be cut by $192 billion over the next decade. Medicaid, the health program for the poor, would be cut by $800 billion, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare, would be cut by $21 billion.

By requiring Social Security numbers to obtain tax refunds, the White House would also pare back the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit — wage supplements for the working poor. Mr. Trump also wants to make large cuts to educational programs aimed at helping often low-income students secure federal loans or grants, and he would cut access to disability payments through Social Security.

Taken together, the cuts represent a significant reordering of the social safety net, away from poor families and toward older Americans, regardless of income. Medicare would be untouched, and the main function of Social Security — retirement income — would flow unimpeded.

In that sense, the plan, which was quickly denounced by several organizations and congressional Democrats, would align government spending with the views of senior administration officials like Ben Carson, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, who maintain that too much help to the poor is creating dependency on the government and discouraging work.

“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs,” Mr. Mulvaney said Monday. “We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off of those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”

Conservatives cheered the proposals.

“The way that the left approaches it is as if any spending level in the current system that has ever been attained is sacrosanct, and they will fight to the death to maintain that even if the programs are of pretty dubious value,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who specializes in welfare and poverty. “If you look at cash, food and housing for families with children, the total spending is roughly twice what is needed to raise every single child above the poverty level.”

Not since President Ronald Reagan’s first budget proposal have programs for the poor been targeted so thoroughly. To critics, it is the opposite of compassion, especially in light of Mr. Trump’s broader plan to cut taxes for the rich, increase military spending and fund his proposed wall on the Mexican border.

“This is overall an assault on a wide range of ordinary Americans for the purpose of providing tax cuts to the wealthiest,” said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit group focused on low-income Americans. “It’s both devastating and it’s, to me, completely in opposition to our national interests — investing in children and families and workers.”

The effect would be broad. About 44 million people received food stamp benefits in 2016, up from the 28 million people who received such benefits in 2008, according to federal data. Those numbers have only receded slightly as the effects of the 2008 recession have faded.

To counter that, Mr. Mulvaney said the president would shift some food stamp program costs to state governments, which now do not pay any of the benefits but do pay for half of the cost of administering the program. Mr. Mulvaney also said the budget would propose a work requirement for food stamp beneficiaries.

“What we have done is not try to remove the social safety net for the folks who need it, but to try to figure out if there are folks who don’t need it and that need to be back in the work force,” he said.

Sharon Parrott, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said shifting the cost to states might end up much like Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, where some states greatly reduced the numbers of uninsured while more conservative states chose not to act. If states are asked to pay for part of the benefits that people receive, she said, people in states with conservative governments could go hungry.

“The food stamp program has always had as its basic premise that poor people, particularly poor kids, should not be allowed to go hungry because of the state they live in,” Ms. Parrott said. “Realistically, if you shift costs to states, that is going to come with more flexibility for states, and that could undermine the basic food assistance safety net for people across the country.”

She also pointed out that as a candidate, Mr. Trump promised not to cut Social Security, but on Monday he proposed to cut millions from Social Security Disability Insurance, a program that she described as “central to the Social Security system.”

Mr. Mulvaney said the president was keeping his promises.

“He said, ‘I promised people on the campaign trail that I would not touch their retirement and I would not touch Medicare.’ And we don’t do it,” Mr. Mulvaney said of the president. “If you ask, 999 people out of 1,000 would tell you that Social Security disability is not part of Social Security. Old age retirement — that they think of as Social Security.”

“Able bodied” people and people who are not “truly disabled” need to go back to work, he said.

In total, Mr. Trump’s budget would save $272 billion over the coming decade through efforts to “reform the welfare system.” Of that, $40 billion would come from the earned-income tax credit, which benefits low- and moderate-income workers, and the child tax credit, which can be worth as much as $1,000 per qualifying child depending upon a person’s income. Too many of those credits are being claimed by immigrants in the country illegally, Mr. Mulvaney said.

Mr. Trump also proposed deep cuts to educational programs that often benefit low-income students including Pell grants, subsidized student loans, and the federal TRIO programs, which provide outreach and services to first-generation college students and people with disabilities.

Enacting the proposals will be difficult. A budget could squeeze through Congress on Republican votes only, but changes to entitlement programs like food stamps will likely take Democratic support. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, called the budget “shortsighted” and “cruel.” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Mr. Trump has “turned his back on the working-class Americans who helped him win the presidency.”

Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, an organization focused on hunger, said the budget plans were “much bigger than the Reagan proposed cuts” that Democrats have said for years led to increases in homelessness and poverty. “They basically remove the entire safety net under tens of million of low-income people,” he said.

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