A long lifetime ago, during his presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump positioned himself as the voice of our country’s “forgotten men and women,” particularly the working-class populations of rural areas that industrialization had left behind. He promised that he was a different kind of Republican, one who would save Medicare, Medicaid and other programs benefiting low-income families from budget cuts.
Now, not only are those Americans still “forgotten,” but they have been subject to an egregiously flagrant bait-and-switch. Trump’s administration released its proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 on Feb. 12, and it proposes Draconian cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) and other government programs that primarily serve low-income Americans — all while increasing the federal deficit. When we also consider the $1.5 trillion tax cut that became law in December, Trump’s administration is responsible for a historic and shameful transfer of wealth from the middle and lower classes to the top tenth of one percent. It’s springtime for plutocrats, and for the rest of the country; the proverbial winter is coming.
In December, I wrote about the recently passed tax reform and observed that the GOP’s typical grim warnings about the crushing burden of deficit spending were summarily reversed. I worried that soon, deficit hawks would use the threat of a debt-driven economic crisis to dismantle transfer programs and policies that help everyday Americans make ends meet. It didn’t take long; that day has come.
It’s difficult to comprehend the bad faith in which Republicans have behaved, or the scale of the potential adverse consequences of the budget proposal, without understanding the brutality of the data. According to the Center for American Progress, the budget would cut Medicaid by $306 billion over the next 10 years. It would increase military spending by 14 percent yet would cut funds allocated to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by around 25 percent, so evidently the diplomacy that could prevent that conflict or military force isn’t worth investing in. It would also apportion $789 billion to the Department of Homeland Security to increase the deportation force by 2,750 immigration and U.S. Border Patrol enforcement officials, which will only terrorize the Latinx community.
But the plan with the most appalling lack of logic and empathy might be the radical changes to the way in which SNAP works. Half of recipients’ monthly benefits would be replaced by a box of food chosen by the government. According to the Department of Agriculture, this program, cheerily known as “America’s Harvest Box,” would involve 81 percent of all SNAP households and include shelf-stable foods such as peanut butter and pasta. This idea is short on compassion and common sense for many reasons. First of all, the bureaucratic logistics of organizing and delivering the boxes would be unnecessarily complex and costly. Details on the program aren’t specific, but there is no indication that variations in diet for regional, cultural, religious or medical reasons would be taken into consideration, and the fresh fruits and vegetables that SNAP families need aren’t exactly shelf-stable. Mostly, though, it’s an affront to low-income parents to suggest that they can’t be trusted to choose food for their children and that wiser authorities should decide what they eat. “America’s Harvest Box” is an Orwellian name for a program that would dismantle the safety net for millions of struggling families.
And it gets worse — the math doesn’t add up. According to Joe Minarik, the former chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget, the budget proposal assumes annualized growth of 3.1 percent over the next three years; the Federal Open Market Committee only predicts growth of 2.2 percent. It also commits a basic error of double-counting by assuming $50 billion of savings from increasing labor force participation on top of assumed economic and employment growth.
So, with its winning combination of bad faith, bad economics and bad arithmetic, this is the budget proposal from hell. It’s important to remember, though, that the president’s budget is not law nor is it implemented government policy — it is the opening volley in a long process in which the House of Representatives and Senate Budget Committees propose, pass and reconcile multiple spending resolutions. But the president’s budget is a wish list that is a statement of values, and those outlined in the budget demonstrate that this administration would willingly torpedo the needs of the “forgotten men and women” while further enriching the top fraction of one percent.