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While We Are Distracted: Social Policy and the War on the Poor


Michael Lewis, author of the important new book The Fifth Risk, has said, “we’re a society of distracted drivers. We’re not paying attention to the thing that matters most…. The society–we don’t–doesn’t function without the government. Government is–it’s been subjected to decades and decades of abuse and scorn, and it’s collected rust. And this guy has come in with a sledgehammer and is having at it. And nobody’s paying much attention because it’s a slow-moving story.”

The day-to-day media cycle of scandals, tweeting, and outright political diversions has shifted attention away from major social policy changes either proposed or implemented in federal agencies. While environmental regulatory changes have received substantial public visibility, important social policy changes in contrast have received very little public attention. Even when individual policy changes surface in the media, they are often out of context of the overall administration agenda. Some have labeled this agenda the “War on the Poor,” as contrasted with the “War on Poverty.”

The Trump Administration has declared that “The War on Poverty is largely over and a success.” The administration has argued that the Great Society programs have actually been effective, run their course, and are now based on the wrong principles. The President’s Executive Order Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility establishes an alternative set of policy principles for poverty policy: empowering opportunities and creating requirements for work; promoting strong social networks; devolving authority and supports to states, localities, and tribal governments; targeting assistance on the few; privatizing services; streamlining bureaucracy and programs; producing innovations; and evaluating services.

In contrast, a report from the United Nations has argued that “the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.” As a human rights matter, the U.N. has concluded that poverty–and extreme poverty–in the U.S. is broadening and deepening.

Bolstered by the rising deficit, the administration has been building the argument that social programs need to be radically scaled back for fiscal reasons. Going back at least to the Stockman era in the Reagan Administration, promotion of tax cuts and resulting deficits has been accepted by fiscal conservatives because it would ultimately force significant reductions or eliminations of assistance programs and provide the political cover to claw back the so-called “entitlements” of Social Security and Medicare. Informally this has been called the “car crash” strategy. The basic idea is that by creating extreme deficits–i.e., crash the budget and create unsustainable debt–radical reductions in social spending will be forced. The current exploding deficits produced by the Trump tax bill–orchestrated by fiscal conservatives Mick Mulvaney and Paul Ryan–fits this strategy perfectly.

So far, social services have experienced only selective budget cuts (relative to rhetoric) during the Trump Administration but have mostly been level funded. In large measure, this disconnect between rhetoric and policy reflects the larger chaos of the Congressional budget and appropriations process. Brinksmanship over last-minute government shutdowns has also largely favored Democratic social policy interests and priorities.

However, longer term discretionary health and human services funding is in a fiscal “scissor” in which increased spending on the debt, defense, and nondiscretionary programs such as Medicare and Social Security will place serious downward pressure on social services spending.

So percolating up in the agencies of the Trump Administration is a broad and deep effort to reframe poverty and fiscally squeeze many social programs and benefits. Here is a representative (though admittedly incomplete) policy list:

Raising rents, reducing benefits, and imposing work requirements in HUD affordable housing programs. The administration’s HUD agenda is wide-ranging, from elimination of the Public Housing Capital Fund, to privatization of housing units, reductions in housing subsidies, imposition of work requirements for residents, and the proposed elimination of the Community Development Block Grant program.

Cutting or eliminating Title X reproductive health benefits for low-income women. Abortion, contraception, Planned Parenthood funding, and counseling have all been targeted. New requirements at federal and state levels have already restricted clinical services for women. Just this week, the number of clinics providing abortion services in the State of Missouri shrunk to one provider for the whole state.

Implementing policy and administrative changes to the Affordable Care Act. The administration has shifted discretion to the states (including the ability to downsize Essential Health Benefits), introduced “exemptions” that will allow individuals to opt-out, enable so-called “association health plans, and defund navigators and gut informational resources for informed choice of insurance plans.

Increasing work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. The administration has encouraged and supported increased work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries in individual states. Although 6 in 10 eligible adults are already working–and the majority of others are disabled, providing care giving, going to school, or report being ill–the work requirements agenda in CMS is paramount.

Increasing work requirements and reducing coverage for SNAP beneficiaries. Although those who receive food stamp (SNAP) benefits have already faced requirements to register for work, the new administration-sponsored farm bill would increase the number of hours required for work or require either participation in job training or performance of community service. It would also reduce foodstuffs to a specified “Harvest Basket” of covered foods.

Eliminating consumer protection functions for vulnerable people in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Initially a product of the Obama Administration (and Director Richard Cordray), the CFPB had an ambitious agenda of combatting pay-day lending practices, predatory lending, debt collection, and other practices targeting the poor. Mulvaney’s first request to the Fed was to zero-out funding for CFPB.

Reducing funding, changing rules, and shifting resources away from disadvantaged beneficiaries of public educationBetsy DeVos and her appointees in the Department of Education have launched a broad initiative to significantly reduce federal funding of public schools; reduce or eliminate numerous supports and enrichment programs such as mental health, after-school, and advance placement courses; reduce support for diversity and civil rights efforts; and shift resources to charter and religiously-affiliated schools. In higher education, the administration has similarly proposed a broad set of changes, including the elimination of Perkins Loans and loan forgiveness for public service, the reduction of work-study support, and the loosening of regulations on for-profit educational vendors.

Challenging green card eligibility for immigrants using public benefits. Legal immigrants making use of food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare Part D, or public housing benefits could face challenges to their immigration status. Draft regulations at the Department of Homeland Security would also make it difficult for prospective immigrants to receive a visa or green card if they are forecasted to be a “public charge” of the state.

Consolidating and reducing benefit programs (Agriculture, Education, HHS, Labor) into a single agency with “Welfare” in the title. This initiative provides both the vehicle for reducing overall spending for public assistance and social supports, as well as creating stigma and prejudice against these programs by branding these activities as welfare.

Many other more subtle, but consequential, changes have been underway to diminish or  disrespect the interests of social policy. Threats to data are especially worrisome. Quiet changes in definition, measurement, and reporting of income and poverty data have begun to politicize the public understanding of the problem and undermine trust in the federal agencies to report the facts.

Related, so many administrative leaders, policy staffs, and analysts in social policy agencies have either been eliminated or replaced that an important source of public policy capacity is missing. New norms of policy analysis and decision-making have been created. In some agencies the words “poverty” and even “policy” are forbidden in public documents. Ideas that could be credited to former administrations are prohibited. On the other hand, certain ideological favorites such as work-requirements, state-waivers, or administrative consolidation are surfacing as solutions everywhere in the agencies.

Far too many important and consequential social policy changes are flying below the radar. There is little transparency in or communications coming out of the agencies. The hype and din of the administration’s daily fare of news makes it hard to appreciate the reality of workaday social policy changes being executed in OMB, HHS, Labor, Education, or DHS.

It is interesting that there is currently no “go-to” think tank or advocacy organization that is keeping track of federal social policy changes in real time. Media attention is sporadic. Many of the traditional think tanks and advocacy organizations–the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Urban Institute, Kaiser, Pew, Brookings, CWLA, etc.–are providing important data and analyses. However, they are not providing the kind of by-the-week and comprehensive monitoring of the rule-making, budgetary changes, and policy decisions that is necessary in these perilous times to follow social policy.

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