Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Trump’s Latest Bid to Punish the Poor

Trump's plan to reorganize federal agencies sounds innocuous. But its real aim is to further gut the welfare state.

Accompanied by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), President Donald Trump arrives at a meeting with House Republicans at the US Capitol, June 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty

Donald Trump won the presidency after running a xenophobic campaign filled with lies and bombast. He conducts himself in office no different. Yet every once in a while his administration proposes something that seems innocuous, even banal. That’s the case with his recently released plan to reorganize federal agencies that implement social policy.

Trump’s proposal is still in development, but its main features involve consolidating cabinet agencies and moving programs around in the name of streamlining and rationalizing the bureaucracy. One of the most headline-grabbing proposals is to combine the departments of Education and Labor. The plan’s other measures are similar. One initiative would shift a housing assistance program from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Another would relocate Community Development Block Grants, currently in HUD, to the Department of Commerce. And in what would perhaps be the biggest shift in funds, the food stamp program — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, which the Agriculture Department has administered for decades — would be placed in a new “welfare” department that would include most programs for the poor.

Trump’s reorganization plan comes as congressional Republicans are pressing for massive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The Trump administration conveniently claims — after its budget-busting tax legislation last year — that federal spending is out of control and must be brought in check. While the fiscal changes are not likely to pass due to Democratic resistance in the Senate, they highlight how Republicans are moving on multiple fronts in a cynical “starve the beast” strategy to squeeze as much money as possible out of social welfare programs. First, they slash taxes for the wealthy. Then they cry that the government is broke and must gut the welfare state.

This broader context is important because Trump’s plan to streamline welfare programs is its own form of symbolic politics, designed to reinforce and enable a vicious cycle of cutbacks. Like most bureaucratic reorganizations, Trump’s plan is intended to make it appear like the president is doing something proactive as a chief executive, even if the steps he’s taking are mostly about optics, messaging, and pleasing his base of supporters. Jack Shafer described it well back in 2012: “Newly elected presidents call for the reorganization of the federal government with such regularity that a federal Department of Reorganization should be established to assist them in their attempts to downsize the bureaucracy, eliminate redundant agencies, reduce red tape, cut costs, and tame the out-of-control agencies created and fed by the presidents elected before them. If you’re earnest enough to think that those moves will actually reduce the size or cost of federal government, I’ve got a monument I’d like to sell you.”

To the extent that they do anything, reorganizations usually seek to enhance the president’s ability to assert control over the entrenched bureaucracy — the “deep state,” in today’s simplistic parlance — and, relatedly, bend policy and its implementation toward the president’s desires.

There isn’t anything wrong with reorganization serving a political agenda. The problem is that such plans often hide under the seemingly neutral cloak of “administrative reform.” A questionable political agenda can be advanced by a symbolic politics that obscures what’s actually happening.

In the case of Trump, his reorganization is ostensibly about creating a more rational and efficient bureaucracy for administering social welfare programs. The ulterior motive is to place more programs under the umbrella of “welfare” so they can be tarred with the denigrated term and thereby open them up to future cuts. Trump’s reorganization plan might be normal, but it is in the service of a symbolic politics designed to stoke regressive budget cutting.

Trump’s reorganization plan builds on recent conservative efforts to relabel SNAP a “welfare,” rather than nutrition, program. For years, conservatives attacked cash assistance as a handout to undeserving poor people while supporting food stamps because they saw it as subsidizing farmer prices and feeding children in needy families. The program benefited “deserving” people. And it was not subject to abuse because the stamps could only be used to buy food. But in the 1990s, with the “end of welfare as we know it,” the number of cash assistance recipients (mostly single mothers with young children) plummeted. Rather than subsidizing families where the parent could not work, funds typically started going to helping recipients find (low-wage) jobs. Without much welfare left to demonize, conservatives turned their attention to SNAP.

In recent years, conservatives have trimmed funding and imposed work requirements at the state level, while congressional Republicans have launched fraud investigations into SNAP. Moving food stamps from the Department of Agriculture into a new welfare department would be a discursive win for conservatives, simultaneously smearing the program with the taint of “welfare” and queuing it up for the chopping block. They are planning to put other programs in the department as well, so they can suffer the same fate. (I should note that I’ve long supported shifting SNAP from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services, out of the hope that it would underscore the goal of the program as ensuring nutrition among low-income recipients rather than propping up farm prices. But that is the last thing Trump’s plan would accomplish.)

For decades, conservative attacks on the welfare state have created self-fulfilling prophecies. The main cash assistance programs for the non-aged poor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), became the kind of program that most poor people would not bother applying for because it was arduous in its eligibility requirements and demeaning in its treatment. Only the most desperate, who had no other means of surviving, would persist in trying to receive TANF benefits. So, the myth turned into reality — most welfare recipients became people who had a multitude of issues and could not get work to support a family. Welfare became the kind of program where it was easy to say that recipients were different and needed to be treated as such.

A similar dynamic has happened with food stamps. After years of cuts to programs for the poor, more and more people came to rely on SNAP not just to try to feed their families but to pay the rent, heat their apartment, and so on. Of course, food stamps are often not even enough to feed the family — but people had to make tough choices between eating and not being homeless. One way to deal with such a desperate situation is to sell food stamps to others (always at a steep discount). Accusations that people are engaging in some kind of fraud with food stamps have therefore gone from myth to reality. Putting SNAP in the proposed welfare department would likely accelerate this vicious cycle, coupling food stamps with other programs that have suffered from conservatives’ self-fulfilling prophecies.

Conservative policy analysts seem to think that this cruel cycle of budget-cutting will enforce personal responsibility on the poor while saving taxpayers money. Trump — assuming he knows or understands what is being proposed — no doubt loves it for his own reasons. He seems to deeply resent welfare programs as federal initiatives for “losers.” And in Trump’s world, you should step over the losers and repudiate the programs associated with them. In Trump’s cynical mind, everyone is cheating and the welfare cheats receiving SNAP benefits should be called out. What better way than to put their program in a welfare department? And what better way to gin up his base?

For Trump, this reorganization is about reinforcing the delusions he lives by; for the conservative wonks, it is about advancing their ongoing attack on the welfare state. Either way, it’s bad news for the poor and good news for the rich. With reorganizations like this, there can only be more tax cuts for the wealthy in our future.