The War on the Poor Is Already Underway
November 22, 2016 | Bob Herbert
It was just a little over two months ago that the Census Bureau reported the very good news that real median household incomes had increased by 5.2% from 2014 to 2015, and that the poverty rate had fallen by 1.3 percentage points. The bureau also told us that the percentage of people without health insurance coverage had continued to decline substantially.
That upbeat report is likely to be the last burst of good news that the poor will see for quite some time. Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and the bellicose tribunes of the hard right are in complete charge of the federal government. Their hostility to such crucial anti-poverty efforts as the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, food stamps, and substantial increases in the minimum wage is hardly a secret.
With both houses of Congress under Republican control, big tax cuts (heavily weighted toward the richest among us) are a virtual certainty. As a result, trillions of dollars in revenues will likely be lost and Congress will be on the hunt for spending cuts to offset them. Social programs will be among the first items in their sights.
We’ve already seen something of a blueprint for what’s coming: Paul Ryan’s wish list was in his 2015 budget proposal. Nearly 70% of its heart-stopping spending cuts would have come from programs designed to help moderate or low-income people. Last spring Ryan came up with another proposal—this one specifically addressing poverty. He recommended, among other things, cuts to unemployment assistance, a phase-out of the Head Start program, and rollbacks in the federal Pell Grant program, which provides desperately needed assistance to low-income students pursuing higher education.
Ryan’s poverty plans seem peculiarly designed to increase the hardships faced by the poor.
Trump’s approach will likely align with Ryan’s, since his fundamental take on poverty is that people are poor because they are not willing to work. In an interview with Sean Hannity last year, Trump was asked if he would be able to lift America’s 50 million poor people out of poverty.
“I would,” said Trump. “I would create incentives for people to work. People don’t have an incentive. They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.”
That, of course, was ominous. The man who is now president-elect did not seem to know that the majority of those who are poor in America are children, people with disabilities, and seniors. Nor did he seem to understand that many adults who are poor actually have jobs and are working every day. There are also millions of people in America who are jobless but frantically seeking work, and millions more who are working part-time but would much rather have full-time employment.
Trump has never given any indication that he knows much or cares much about the poor. Early in his campaign he seemed to be strongly against a higher minimum wage, one of the most important weapons in the anti-poverty arsenal. A year ago, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Trump said, “Our taxes are too high, our wages are too high, everything is too high.” And in one of the GOP primary debates, when asked if he would raise the minimum wage, he replied, “I would not do it.”
Since then, Trump has modified his position somewhat, saying variously that he would look at the possibility of a higher minimum wage, that people need more money, and that states should determine whether minimum wage levels should be raised.
It is, of course, always difficult to glean what Trump’s position is on any given policy. His approaches to policy matters are typically incoherent. But there is nothing that he and the rest of his party have said that would signal anything other than a relentless assault on programs that aid lower-income Americans. Paul Ryan has long been trying to undermine Social Security and Medicare—programs that are cherished by his own Republican constituents. Trump has said that he would protect the benefits of both programs, but who knows what he would do when the tax cuts kick in and deficits start to rise.
For those concerned about the well-being of lower-income individuals and families, it’s dismaying to hear how falsely the right has portrayed the state of the economy during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Congressional Republicans have shamelessly bad-mouthed the economy at every turn, and their goal was not just to win elections. By trashing all things Obama, they have laid the groundwork for their campaign to undo many of the policies and initiatives that have helped so many Americans, including the poor, since the darkest days of the Great Recession.
This false portrayal of the economy was absorbed by an awful lot of voters. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic magazine:
“More than half of Republicans think that unemployment has increased under Obama. It has in fact fallen from 10% in 2010 to below 5% today. The labor market is in its longest continuous expansion ever, and the last 12 months have been the best period for wage growth this century.”
Memories are short. When Obama took office, the economy was hemorrhaging 700,000 to 800,000 jobs a month. Since 2010, the economy has grown by nearly 200,000 jobs a month. Twenty million more Americans have health insurance coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Hillary Clinton may have lost Michigan in the presidential election, but if not for Obama and a willing Congress, America would have lost the automobile industry. Try to imagine the impact of that on Michigan and the rest of the country.
Sure, there are plenty of people who are still hurting. But the way to address the concerns of those who are struggling is not to demolish the policies that have already helped millions. We should build upon those policies, improve them, and make every effort to expand the economy and raise the living standards of those who continue to struggle.
What is difficult for so many people of goodwill to comprehend is that improving the lives of poor and low-income Americans is not the objective of conservative politicians. The overriding goals of Donald Trump and his allies in Congress are the same as the goals of the conservative movement throughout the modern era: to expand the wealth, status, and power of the privileged few at the expense of everyone else. That’s why big tax cuts for the rich are the top priority.
All of history tells us that the poor will suffer when Donald Trump comes into office. Just trace how the poor have fared under various administrations from, say, the beginning of the 1930s until now. There’s a reason why George H.W. Bush ridiculed his own party’s trickle-down theories as “voodoo economics.”
In contrast, here is what the policies of the Obama Administration have led to, as recently described by Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
“For the first time since 1999, all three key indicators of well-being in the annual Census data moved decisively in the right direction in 2015. The number of uninsured Americans fell by 4 million from 2014 to 2015, on top of a drop of nearly 9 million the year before, with the uninsured rate falling to a historically low 9.1%. The typical household’s income rose by 5.2% or $2,798, after adjusting for inflation, the largest increase on record with data back to 1967. The poverty rate dropped from 14.8% to 13.5%, tying the largest improvement since 1968. Moreover, data to date for 2016 indicate further progress so far this year.”
That was the good news. The bad news is that President-elect Donald Trump and a like-minded Congress are barreling ahead with plans that will undo much, if not most, of that very substantial progress. Unless advocates for the poor in and out of Congress mobilize for a fight like they haven’t seen in decades, an awful lot of poor people will face many long years of extreme—and I do mean extreme—suffering.