One of the big unknowns about the Trump presidency is this: Will Trump prove to be ideologically different from congressional Republicans when it comes to big policy questions that directly impact his blue-collar white base, as he strongly suggested he would throughout the campaign?
Or will Trump go along with congressional GOP priorities, in ways that ultimately work against his own voters’ interests?
A new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides an interesting way to look at these questions.
The study’s key finding is that the largest group that is lifted out of poverty by government safety net programs is made up of working-class whites. To oversimplify, the study used 2014 census data to measure the impact of a number of tax and transfer programs, such as food stamps, tax credits and housing subsidies, on adults of working age. The result punctures the stereotype that such safety net programs primarily benefit minorities:
Wonkblog’s Tracy Jan has a piece that explains the methodology in detail. The immediate political significance of this is that in the past, congressional GOP budgets have deeply cut into such government programs. But in the past, Republicans didn’t control both the White House and Congress. Now they do. Which means that if Republicans do the same thing again, and this budgeting becomes reality, it could hit working-class whites disproportionately hard.
As Isaac Shapiro, the lead author of the study for the liberal-leaning group, tells Jan:
Working-class whites drawn to President Trump’s campaign may be particularly hard hit by the policies of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, Shapiro said …
“A missing element of the political conversation has been the degree to which government programs are important to the working class in general, and the white working class in particular,” Shapiro said. “Many of these programs could be the subject of dramatic cuts over the next year. Rather than helping the working class address their basic needs and escape from poverty, the potential political agenda is going to push precisely in the opposite direction.”
As Ron Brownstein points out, the coalition that keeps congressional Republicans in power is increasingly dependent on working-class whites, which in theory should create a dilemma for those Republicans. The study’s results, notes Brownstein, “underscore the challenge Republicans face reconciling their ideological determination to shrink the federal government with the practical needs of their increasingly working-class coalition.”
But we’ve seen already that House Republicans vote for budgets that slash programs that benefit these voters. Yet as Brownstein also points out, Trump, too, won the presidency with truly overwhelming working-class white support, and indeed, Trump appears to be driving ever more working-class whites into the Republican coalition.
Not only that, but Trump has also repeatedly held himself up as ideologically different from congressional Republicans — and the GOP — on matters involving the economic interests of working-class whites. He has vowed not to cut Medicare and Social Security. He has promised to renegotiate our trade deals in ways that will help those workers, bucking GOP orthodoxy (though it remains unclear whether his renegotiations will actually be good for workers).
And while it’s true Trump did vow to repeal Obamacare, he also sent strong signals to working-class white voters that he is not ideologically hostile to a robust government role in providing health care to people who lack it, such as them. Congressional Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and their replacement is likely to kick many millions off of coverage. If Trump goes along with them, that could disproportionately hurt non-college-educated, lower-income whites, too: Recent Gallup data shows that the uninsured rate has fallen by disproportionately large amounts among them.
We don’t yet know what Trump will do on all those fronts. But now we can add anti-poverty programs into this mix. Will Trump go along with GOP budgets that cut them in ways that harm his voters?
Now, one could of course point out that Trump promised working-class whites not merely government help, but also jobs. Trump campaigned on a promise to bring manufacturing and coal jobs roaring back to Appalachia and the industrial heartland. As Mike Konczal recently observed, Trump relentlessly told these voters that the old-style blue-collar jobs he restored would be enough to lift them to a more prosperous future. This was far more appealing than being told that the economy has evolved; their jobs are not coming back; and they’ll need government help to soften the blow (or transition to other employment).
If Trump can deliver on that, then maybe his voters won’t need such government help anymore. But the question is: What happens if he doesn’t? One very plausible outcome is that Trump does not deliver on the promise to bring all those jobs roaring back and he ends up going along with congressional GOP cuts to a safety net that is meant to help those who have been economically stranded. That would be a doubly cruel outcome.
Now, maybe that won’t happen. Maybe Trump will, in the end, buck GOP budgeting orthodoxy. I guess we’ll soon find out.