Trump’s budget says poverty aid doesn’t work — is that so?

By Aimee Picchi

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget takes aim at a number of antipoverty programs, framing them as benefits that discourage Americans from working. 

Released on Tuesday, the budget proposes cutting $1.74 trillion from social safety net programs including food stamps and disability payments. That will help offset lower taxes for businesses and top-earning individuals and spending on defense, although White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said the goal is to get “people to go to work.”

Mulvaney, who has previously said it isn’t fair to ask “the autoworker in Ohio” to pay taxes to support such programs, is hewing to the conservative view that providing government aid can dampen an individual’s desire to work. The conservative Heritage Foundation, for one, has come out in support of the budget, saying it will redirect tax revenue to “the most effective programs.”

This implies that food stamps, disability and other antipoverty programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit either aren’t effective or not as helpful as they could be. But some researchers say many of the programs Mr. Trump is proposing to slash have successfully served as antipoverty measures, and they add the budget raises concerns about whether it would leave more Americans struggling to get by. 

“Having access to health care and food makes it possible to work,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “This is a horrifying budget that cuts all these programs in order to fund huge tax cuts for the very wealthy and huge corporations.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for the food-stamp program, would face $192 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. Medicaid, which provides health insurance for the poor, would lose $800 billion in funding. Disability aid, such as the Social Security Disability insurance, would be cut by almost $73 billion.

Many of the demographic groups that provided Mr. Trump with strong support would be hurt by the proposed cuts. More than one-quarter of food-stamp recipients describe themselves as either Republican or independent, according to Pew Research Center, compared with 22 percent who say they’re Democrats. Voters in many of the states with the highest rates of disability, such as West Virginia and Arkansas, pushed Mr. Trump to victory in the 2016 election.

About 55 percent of households relying on food stamps live in states that supported Mr. Trump in the election, according to Andrea Flynn, a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute. Roughly half of food-stamp recipients are white Americans. 

“Now is precisely the time we should be investing more in these programs — not eviscerating them,” Flynn said. “Doing so would improve the well being of families in all demographic groups and neighborhoods across the country.”

Food stamps have served as one of the country’s most successful antipoverty measures. Economists have found the program has long-term positive impacts on children and women. Children of parents who have access to food stamps have lower rates of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease in adulthood, while women who get food stamps are more likely to achieve economic independence, researchers have found. 

“It’s less about SNAP and more about a world view that tax cuts for the wealthy are so important it’s worth cutting the social safety net,” said Stacy Dean, a vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The program is proven to alleviate poverty. It also is demonstrating long-term impacts, and as a result policymakers are generally supportive of the program.”

Food stamps are “government at its best,” she added. 

Here are three questions Mr. Trump’s budget raises about antipoverty programs: 

Why is food-stamp usage still elevated from the recession? Enrollment remains above its prerecession levels, although millions of people are leaving the program each year. In 2014, 46.6 million people received the benefit, which has declined to 42 million this year. The reason it remains high may be tied to the post-recession surge in low-wage jobs with unstable hours, which makes it tougher for working families to make ends meet.

Are social-safety net programs discouraging people from working? The budget says social policies such as food stamps are a disincentive to enter the workforce, an assertion that poverty researchers disagree with. In fact, about two-thirds of SNAP recipients are either children, elderly or disabled, while the majority of recipients who can work, do so. Monthly food-stamp payments are only $127.57 per person on average, which isn’t enough to live on. 

Disability payments are less than $1,200 per month on average, or slightly above the federal poverty level. By comparison, working Americans earned about $4,000 per month in 2015 on average, according to the Social Security Administration. 

How do antipoverty programs affect the labor force participation rate? Fewer adult Americans are working today than in previous years, which the budget implies may be tied to government handouts. Economists have puzzled over the decline in the participation rate, with some pointing to a shift in the quality of jobs as a reason fewer workers are clocking in. 

The decline is particularly evident for men without college degrees, who are suffering from lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of those men are signing up for disability benefits, although no evidence has shown that applying for disability causes workers to permanently leave the labor force, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

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