In general, Donald Trump is notoriously uninterested in policy details. It has long been obvious, for example, that he never bothered to find out what his one major legislative victory, the 2017 tax cut, actually did. Similarly, it’s pretty clear that he had no idea what was actually in the Iran agreement he just repudiated.
In each case, it was about ego rather than substance: scoring a “win,” undoing his predecessor’s achievement.
But there are some policy issues he really does care about. By all accounts, he really hates the idea of people receiving “welfare,” by which he means any government program that helps people with low income, and he wants to eliminate such programs wherever possible.
Most recently, he has reportedly threatened to veto the upcoming farm bill unless it imposes stringent new work requirements on recipients of SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still commonly referred to as food stamps.
Let me be upfront here: There’s something fundamentally obscene about this spectacle. Here we have a man who inherited great wealth, then built a business career largely around duping the gullible – whether they were naïve investors in his business ventures left holding the bag when those ventures went bankrupt, or students who wasted time and money on worthless degrees from Trump University. Yet he’s determined to snatch food from the mouths of the truly desperate, because he’s sure that somehow or other they’re getting away with something, having it too easy.
But however petty Trump’s motives, this is a big deal from the other side. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that new work requirements plus other restrictions proposed by House Republicans would end up denying or reducing nutritional aid to around 2 million people, mostly in families with children.
Why would anyone want to do that? The thing is, it’s not just Trump: Conservative hatred for food stamps is pervasive. What’s behind it?
The more respectable, supposedly intellectual side of conservative opinion portrays food stamps as reducing incentives by making life too pleasant for the poor. As Paul Ryan put it, SNAP and other programs create a “hammock” that “lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”
But this is a problem that exists only in the right’s imagination. Able-bodied SNAP recipients who should be working but aren’t are very hard to find: A vast majority of the program’s beneficiaries either are working – but at unstable jobs that pay low wages – or are children, elderly, disabled or essential family caregivers.
Oh, and there’s strong evidence that children in low-income families that receive food stamps become more productive and healthier adults, which means that the program is actually good for long-run economic growth.
Is it about the money? The enactment of the budget-busting 2017 tax cut proved once and for all, for anyone who had doubts, that Republicans don’t actually care about deficits.
But even if they did care about deficits, the CBO estimates that the proposed cuts to food stamps would save less than 1 percent, that’s right, 1 percent, of the revenue lost due to that tax cut. In fact, over the next decade the entire SNAP program, which helps 40 million Americans, will cost only about a third as much as the tax cut. No, it’s not about the money.
What about racism? Historically, attacks on food stamps have often involved a barely disguised racial element – for example, when Ronald Reagan imagined a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks. And I suspect that Trump himself still thinks of food stamps as a program for urban black people.
But while many urban blacks do get food stamps, so do many rural whites. Nationally, significantly more whites than blacks receive food stamps, and participation in SNAP is higher in rural than in urban counties. Food stamps are especially important in depressed regions like Appalachia that have lost jobs in coal and other traditional sectors.
And yes, this means that some of the biggest victims of Trump’s obsession with cutting “welfare” will be the very people who put him in office.
Consider Owsley County, Kentucky, at the epicenter of Appalachia’s regional crisis. More than half the county’s population receives food stamps; 84 percent of its voters supported Trump in 2016. Did they know what they were voting for?
In the end, I don’t believe there’s any policy justification for the attack on food stamps: It’s not about the incentives, and it’s not about the money. And even the racial animus that traditionally underlies attacks on U.S. social programs has receded partially into the background.
No, this is about petty cruelty turned into a principle of government. It’s about privileged people who look at the less fortunate and don’t think, “There but for the grace of God go I”; they just see a bunch of losers. They don’t want to help the less fortunate; in fact, they get angry at the very idea of public aid that makes those losers a bit less miserable.
And these are the people now running America.