Opinion writer

As the Trump White House works to sell its budget proposal, which was released today, there’s a revealing ideological argument emerging to justify the absolutely brutal cuts to social programs that the budget includes. Americans, the administration is saying, come in two types: the deserving and the undeserving, the taxpayers and the moochers.

You don’t have to worry about the way we’re eviscerating so many programs, because we’re only going after those people. It’s based on a fundamental lie: that there are taxpayers and then there are people who use social programs, and the two are not only not the same people, the groups don’t even overlap. Here’s how White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney describes it:

“If I had sort of a subtitle for this budget, it would be the Taxpayer First Budget. This is I think the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes. So often in Washington I think we look only on the recipient side: How does the budget affect those who either receive or don’t receive benefits?…Can I ask somebody, a family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to pay tax money to the government so that I can do X?”

The whole point here is to set “taxpayers” against the supposedly undeserving whose scams and schemes can be stopped with only indiscriminate cuts to social programs. Watching Mulvaney answer questions from the press this morning, that idea came through again and again. Every time he’d get a question about a specific cut the administration proposes — to Social Security disability, to food stamps, to Medicaid — Mulvaney would say that the only people who would suffer would be those who don’t deserve to get the benefit in the first place. “We are not kicking anybody off of any program who really needs it,” he said.

But if you paid close attention, you noticed a curious logical gap in his argument. See if you can spot it in this line of reasoning:

  1. There are people on these programs who don’t deserve to be.
  2. Therefore, we will slash the program.
  3. Then, only the deserving will be receiving the benefit.

What’s missing is any suggestion that the administration has some sort of plan to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving. For instance, Mulvaney was asked about the administration’s desire to impose work requirements on those who get food stamps. What about people who are trying to find work but can’t? He promised that if that were the case, the government would “work with you” in some way that he wouldn’t specify. “It’s the folks who are on there who don’t want to work” who are the problem, he said. They’re proposing to cut the program by 25 percent, or $190 billion over the next decade; Is all that going to come from finding and expelling those “who don’t want to work”? How would they go about that? He didn’t say.

Or let’s take another example: help for those with disabilities. The administration is proposing $72 billion in cuts to disability programs, mostly from Social Security. When asked, Mulvaney said that while there are some people who are legitimately disabled getting that help, there are others who aren’t. But he didn’t discuss any new measures to identify these nefarious swindlers; instead, the White House just wants to cut the entire program. We see this logic at work again and again: White House officials assert that there are some unknown number of people mooching off the system, then use that as a justification for punishing everyone who gets that benefit, including the overwhelming majority of those who get it legitimately.

You’ll notice, however, that Republicans only propose doing that when the people they’re victimizing don’t have enough political power to fight back. Let’s take a counter-example: Medicare. Medicare fraud is an enormous problem; this Government Accountability Office report estimated that we lost $60 billion to it in 2014. So does the Trump administration use that as an excuse for sweeping across-the-board cuts to Medicare benefits? No it doesn’t, because seniors have enormous political power and would never stand for it. People who are poor or disabled, on the other hand, aren’t as organized, so they’re a target.

In making these arguments, the administration is playing on an extremely common bias. It says that the government programs I avail myself of either aren’t government programs at all, or are things I deserve because of my virtue, while the government programs you use are only for freeloaders.

We’ll even apply that division to the same programs. Many people who rely on safety-net programs will find someone nearby whom they can point to as the undeserving moocher. It’s their cousin who gets disability but is capable of going fishing, or their neighbor who’s on unemployment but has an under-the-table construction job, or someone else who gets food stamps but seems like they might not need them. It’s a way of saying, “When I use these programs it’s legitimate, because I’m a good and honest person. The problem is somebody else.” This sentiment exists at all income levels.

The Trump administration is obviously hoping it can play on that feeling to win support for a series of cuts to programs for poor people that is simply mind-boggling in its cruelty (and which will of course be combined with a massive tax cut for the wealthy). The administration can only do it if enough Americans agree that the real problem in this country is their fellow citizens, especially those who have the least and need the most help. Aim your resentment and your contempt downward, the Trump administration says. Those people are the ones holding us back, and the only way to deal with them is to make sure their suffering is as deep as possible. Then they’ll learn their lesson.