News & Politics

Trump Has a Plan to Even Further Demonize Food Stamps

Once these benefits are combined under one departmental roof, it will probably be easier to cut them all.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

In an attempt to find new ways to make life worse for people receiving any government benefits, the Trump administration is seeking to lump together all government benefit programs into a renamed and reorganized Department of Health and Human Services. And you can be sure that the word “welfare” will be emphasized in any new organization.

According to a story that ran first in Politico, the White House Office of Management and Budget soon will release a new report outlining a plan to move all safety-net programs into HHS and to give the federal department a new name, emphasizing the “welfare” moniker that used to be part of the department’s name. A big reason for this recommendation is to lump the $70 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, in with Medicare and Medicaid. SNAP would move out of the Department of Agriculture, where it is now housed.

The reasoning is likely that once these benefits are combined under one departmental roof, it will be easier to cut them all.

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The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was created in 1953 and became the Department of Health and Human Services in May 1980, splitting off the “education” part into a new Cabinet-level department. Part of the reason for dropping the “welfare” name in the first place when Congress established HHS and the Department of Education in the late 1970s was to emphasize the health and service part. Even during the Trump administration, the department’s mission statement at HHS.gov reads:

The mission of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans, by providing for effective health and human services and by fostering sound, sustained advances in the sciences underlying medicine, public health, and social services.

“Health and well-being”? “Sound, sustained advances in sciences”? No doubt people in Trumpworld overlooked this wording. Otherwise, they would have taken out the humanity and intelligence implicit in the definition.

Any change in federal departments would have to be passed by Congress, but Republicans seem all too willing to push through changes that trim benefits and add more conditions for recipients.

In March 2017, Donald Trump issued an executive order directing OMB to overhaul the federal government, and the budget office’s report is predicted to recommend retooling many departments and agencies. The reorganization proposal on safety-net programs originally came from recommendations by the conservative group the Heritage Foundation. According to the Politico story:

Heritage recommended that all nutrition functions at USDA — including food stamps, nutrition education, and school meal programs that serve some 30 million children each day — be transferred to HHS.

“[T]he USDA has veered off of its mission by working extensively on issues unrelated to agriculture. This is mostly due to the nutrition programs,” Heritage wrote in last year’s report about reorganizing the government. “By moving this welfare function to HHS, the USDA will be better able to work on agricultural issues impacting all Americans.”

In other words, once you remove the food stamps, they can concentrate more on farm subsidies, because that’s what their voters like. Because in that way of thinking, agriculture—growing food—has nothing to do with nutrition, right?

House Republicans might have failed in their latest attempt at a farm bill, but only because of internal fights within the GOP over immigration. Even that failed bill included draconian work requirements for food stamp recipients and was opposed by Democrats. The bill would have required adults to spend 20 hours per week either working or participating in a state-run training program as a condition of receiving benefits, according to a story in The Washington Post:

Democrats argue that a million or more people would end up losing benefits, because most states do not have the capacity to set up the training programs required.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the legislation as “cruel” and argued that with the proposed changes to food stamps, “Republicans are taking food out of the mouths of families struggling to make ends meet.”

But cutting aid and adding work requirements is part of the plan. Those work requirements that likely would have taken about 1 million people off food stamps also would save about $20 billion over 10 years. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the massive hole that the GOP tax cuts are digging in the federal budget, but House Speaker Paul Ryan has no qualms about taking away benefits from the poor.

The rationale behind those cuts is based on the usual misconception about exactly which Americans are on food stamps. Here are facts about food stamp recipients from a USDA website, using the most recent data available from fiscal year 2016 and published in January 2018. In that year, the program served some 44.2 million people, a slight decrease from previous years.

  • Nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants were children, elderly, or had disabilities.
  • One-third of all SNAP participants already have jobs, and over half of families with children on food stamps have jobs.
  • Eight out of 10 SNAP beneficiaries live in or near major cities, while 10 percent live in or near smaller cities and seven percent live in rural areas.
  • When food stamps are added to a family’s gross income, 10 percent of SNAP families move above the poverty line.
  • The average monthly benefit for SNAP households was $249.

That amount of money doesn’t go too far in paying for groceries. Instead, cuts would take food money away from the working poor or those unable to work.

Despite the stereotype of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” the biggest beneficiaries of government safety-net programs are working-class whites. A 2017 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that whites without a college degree were the largest group of people lifted out of poverty because of government programs. Here’s how The Washington Post described some of the study’s data:

Government assistance and tax credits lifted 6.2 million working-class whites out of poverty in 2014, more than any other racial or ethnic demographic. Half of all working-age adults without college degrees lifted out of poverty by safety-net programs are white; nearly a quarter are black and a fifth are Hispanic.

The result does not simply reflect the fact that there are more white people in the country. The percentage of otherwise poor whites lifted from poverty by government safety-net programs is higher, at 44 percent, compared to 35 percent of otherwise poor minorities, the study concluded.

The saving grace might be that such a massive overhaul of the federal government would have a hard time getting through Congress. If you think congressional Republicans can’t get anything done now, just imagine how ineffective they would be trying to restructure such large programs. The danger is that, just as they’re doing to the Affordable Care Act, they will take a simplistic approach and slash funding without developing the needed plans and details of making a new program work.

Too bad son-in-law Jared Kushner is too busy trying to create peace in the Middle East to handle this task, right? Actually, overhauling government bureaucracy was on Kushner’s original to-do list—just another job he didn’t get done.