It’s no secret that the GOP tax plan working its way through Congress is weighted toward the wealthy. The richest Americans get the bulk of the tax cuts, and the poorest Americans see a tax increase. But Republicans aren’t satisfied with one blow for inequality: They’re openly positioning to attack the poor on several fronts.
The first attack will be welfare reform. It’s a GOP classic: Through the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans encouraged the “welfare queen” stereotype — lazy minorities living high and mighty off tax dollars — to drive down support for welfare (and win elections). It worked. Opposition to the program became so overwhelming that in 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton signed a Republican-written “reform” bill instituting work requirements, time limits on assistance and stricter enforcement.
Republicans argue today, as they did then, that these changes would get people back to work, helping both themselves and the economy. As Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) puts it, “For us to achieve 3 percent GDP growth over the next 10 years from tax reform, we have to have welfare reform.” The list of targeted programs has broadened: A bill introduced by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) would add work requirements for food stamps, implement more work requirements for welfare and slash federal spending on subsidized housing programs by 50 percent over 10 years.
It should come as no surprise to anyone following the GOP’s tax bill that the party’s policy ideas have no basis in reality. Yes, the Clinton-era changes did reduce the number of people on welfare, as Republicans predicted. But citing that as a positive would be like saying Americans are healthier when there are fewer people on Medicare. In fact, poverty has increased since the bill’s passage even while the government is spending more on anti-poverty programs.
Adding work requirements for food stamps and cutting subsidized housing make little sense, either. The majority of people benefiting from food stamps are children, elderly or disabled. Of those who can work, most are already employed or find employment within one year of going on food stamps. And at a time when housing shortages are driving up prices in many major urban centers, the government should be investing more, not less, in subsidized housing.
But evidence won’t stop the GOP from plowing ahead. Republicans at the state level aren’t even waiting for Congress to act. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, under whom the state’s poverty rate has reached its highest in 30 years, now wants to drug-test some food stamp recipients, despite the failure of a similar program in Florida. The Agriculture Department looks set to give Wisconsin and other states the go-ahead to do so. Last month, the Trump administration announced that it would allow states to add work requirements for Medicaid enrollees. At least a half-dozen GOP-controlled states are expected to do so, even though three-quarters of Medicaid recipients are in households where at least one member has a part-time or full-time job. Kentucky alone projects that 95,000 fewer people will us Medicaid if work requirements are implemented. In many cases, this will create a terrible cycle: People too ill to work will lose their best hope of regaining their ability to work.
Back in Washington, the “reforms” described earlier are just a prelude to what House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and allies really want: the destruction of America’s social safety net. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said Wednesday. “Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt.” In other words, it’s not just Medicaid in the crosshairs — it’s Medicare as well.
Even before the House and Senate finished passing their versions of the tax cut, Republicans were dancing a familiar step: increase the deficit by slashing revenues, then turn around and claim the country needs to cut spending by cutting entitlements. “You also have to bring spending under control,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said last week. “The driver of our debt is the structure of Social Security and Medicare for future beneficiaries.” (Note the phrase “for future beneficiaries” — the GOP won’t touch the benefits of its older base.)
“The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member,” goes the apocryphal quote. Even if you don’t agree with that sentiment, it should be clear that the GOP won’t attack only the poorest among us. They will move up the class ladder. Ryan promises that Medicare cuts will follow Medicaid cuts, and Social Security cuts are likely to follow. Demonizing the poor is simply Republicans’ way of easing into that. Now it’s up to voters to stop them.