A Tough Week for the Social Safety Net

(AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker describes his proposal to reduce food stamp benefits for parents who do not meet work requirements on January 23, 2017.

The past few days have been difficult, on both the state and federal level, for the country’s already frayed social safety net. Several states, taking their cues from the Trump administration, have restricted and made cuts to anti-poverty programs, and this week, too, the federal government has joined in the shredding of welfare assistance.

The week began with the tiniest of hopes, as the Republican-dominated Tennessee State Legislature voted Monday to raise cash assistance levels for the first time in 22 years. But the abysmal increase brings total benefits for a family of three to just 16 percent of the poverty line, and that same state legislature is moving forward with Medicaid work requirements that could strip health care from thousands of adults with children.

In Wisconsin on Tuesday, Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law nine bills that limit welfare assistance in new ways, with policies that may inspire other states to introduce similarly punitive measures. The new laws include ramped-up work requirements, drug-testing for public-housing applicants, and more asset tests that require recipients to spend down savings before receiving assistance.

Walker said the new laws would ensure that public assistance is “more like a trampoline and less like a hammock”—but you can’t have a trampoline if you neglect to include the bouncy material, just red tape and unnecessary drug tests. And living on welfare assistance is anything but lying in a hammock. When low-income people are forced to rely on government programs for essentials like food, shelter, and health care because of unstable, low-wage work that generally (and especially in Wisconsin) isn’t protected by unions, their lives are not easier than those of the middle class.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order requiring government agencies to review their public assistance programs in order to increase flexibility for states (that means block grants) and reinforce or introduce work requirements (that means removing poor people from the rolls). The administration is targeting not only food assistance and medical assistance, but also housing assistance.

These changes seem to reflect a move toward more programs mirroring Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the block grant cash assistance program that was the hallmark of “welfare reform” in 1996, and that has resulted in fewer poor families receiving assistance, along with an increase in deep or extreme poverty. As Vox has detailed, the research the White House is citing as evidence of TANF’s success is faulty at best.

But that’s not all. The Trump administration sent a letter to states last year indicating that they could request to add another layer of bureaucracy to their state Medicaid programs in the form of work requirements. Currently, seven states have pending requests to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to implement work requirements; Tennessee may be the next state to request approval. Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas have already been approved to kick low-income people off Medicaid if they don’t meet extensive requirements.

On Thursday, Texas Republican and House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway introduced a farm bill that further increases work requirements for adults receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps. In defense of the SNAP provisions, Conaway said, “We believe that breaking this poverty cycle is really important.” But reliable data on work requirements show that they do little more than remove people from assistance (often simply because of red tape)—not remove them from poverty.

The social safety net was already in tatters before Trump took office, so these blows are particularly devastating. And with Republicans holding trifecta control of more than half of state governments, more states could continue to respond to the administration’s signals and push even more people further away from financial security.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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