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‘We would literally not survive’: How Trump’s plans for the social safety net would affect America’s poorest

Dee Clarke, 60, lives in Section 8 housing and receives Medicaid, $170 a month in food stamps and $760 a month in disability for post-traumatic stress disorder from years of physical and sexual abuse. (Tristan Spinski/TRISTAN SPINSKI)

Since the day in January 2010 when teenager Courtney Bias and her 1-week-old daughter were kicked out of her mother’s house, the young family has slept wherever they can: under bridges. On strangers’ floors. In city parks.

Today, 25-year-old Bias, her boyfriend and their three young children are renting part of a friend’s apartment outside Baltimore. They scrape by on his wages from construction and landscaping jobs, relying on federal food stamps to help feed their children and Medicaid for doctor’s visits. Bias has also been on a wait list for subsidized housing for the past seven years and was told 2018 would be the year she could finally move into her own apartment.

But after hearing the Trump administration’s plans to overhaul the social safety net, Bias is afraid that she and her family could wind up on the streets, where they started. “My kids and I were in a lot of sticky situations before,” Bias said. “We can’t wait another seven years to get off that list.”

The White House's spending priorities for 2018 renege on President Trump's promises to lower the deficit and keep Medicare and Medicaid spending without cuts. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The president’s budget proposal, released Monday, would slash nearly half a trillion dollars over the next 10 years from the three main pillars of the social safety net: Medicaid, federal housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

Anti-poverty advocates say the cuts and a radical restructuring — substituting “food boxes” for food stamps and introducing work requirements for subsidized housing — could make life more precarious for 90 million low-income Americans who rely on at least one of those programs, potentially pushing millions off the programs and reducing benefits for the ones who are left.

By dramatically curtailing spending on these programs, the administration has said, it can shrink the deficit and focus benefits on the truly needy.

But anti-poverty advocates have warned that the cuts put vulnerable low-income families at risk of hunger or homelessness — particularly if they, like an estimated 5.7 million Americans, depend on all three of the targeted programs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Is that making America great — by making it unbearable for people who are U.S. citizens to even live here?” asked Daisy Franklin, a 60-year-old grandmother in Norwalk, Conn., whose household of four relies upon Medicaid, a federal housing voucher and more than $300 a month in food stamps. “It sounds like Trump is trying to turn the clock back.”

For decades, Franklin worked assembling electronic components for local manufacturers. But she stopped working in 2010 after developing fibromyalgia and went on disability, collecting $1,250 a month. Her adult daughter supplements the household budget with a part-time $10-an-hour job at Marshalls, and Franklin helps care for her 4- and 5-year-old granddaughters.

The money from her disability check usually runs out well before the end of the month — even with help from food stamps to supplement groceries and a housing voucher that covers two-thirds of their $1,450-a-month rent.

“There’s a lot of families in our same boat,” Franklin said. “People are afraid. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”

Franklin’s family is representative of the average household on public benefits, government statistics show. The majority of Americans on welfare programs for the poor are children, seniors, people with disabilities and working adults with low-paying jobs.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, only 6 percent of housing subsidy recipients are able to work but do not. Among SNAP recipients, that figure is 14 percent, according to a 2014 release from the Department of Agriculture.

Still, work and other stricter eligibility requirements have become a major focus of welfare restructuring over the past 20 years, a move that advocates say is needed to help low-income people wean off government dependence and take care of themselves.

President Trump’s budget proposals echo the 1996 welfare changes under President Bill Clinton that, for the first time, required those receiving cash welfare to work or look for work.

“The goal of welfare shouldn’t be just to give people more and more government aid. What you want to do is promote constructive behaviors that lead people to greater levels of self-support, combined with aid,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who helped craft the Clinton-era changes. “You want to have a welfare system in which all aid is contingent on work.”

The proposal champions new work requirements for those who receive federal housing vouchers, in addition to cuts to federal welfare grants to states. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also plans to propose legislation to Congress in March that would increase mandatory minimum rents and provide greater incentive to work by deferring rent increases for those who earn higher wages.

On top of that, the president’s budget slashes Medicaid by $250 billion over the next 10 years. Trump also called for cutting SNAP by 22 percent in 2019, largely by radically restructuring the program and tightening work requirements in high-unemployment areas. And he has proposed cutting $72 billion from disability programs over the next decade.

Rector said work requirements benefit recipients’ psychological well-being in addition to saving taxpayers’ money by weeding out fraud and abuse, targeting resources to the most needy. “The reality is when you do that, the caseload drops dramatically, and that’s not a bad thing,” Rector said.

But for families whose cases may be “dropped” under the president’s proposal, the future has become uncertain. That includes households that would not be affected by new work requirements but could suffer from cuts and changes to social services.

Cathy Winfrey, a 33-year-old mother of five in Reston, Va., fears the Trump budget would undo years of scrimping and sacrifice she undertook to get her children in safe housing.

Despite holding an associate degree and a well-paid, full-time job, Winfrey found herself broke and homeless in 2016 after she and her husband separated. After a stint living in her car, and several months at a homeless shelter, Winfrey managed to move into a three-bedroom townhouse with the help of government housing assistance. The kids now receive Medicaid and subsidized child care, and the family collects $380 per month in food stamps.

Even with that help, Winfrey has worn her sneakers down to the soles and slept three people to a room to minimize her family’s expenses. She has $100 in her savings account. Though her children have regular meals and permanent housing, the family still lives paycheck to paycheck.

“This isn’t a handout or a luxury to me — we would literally not survive without benefits,” Winfrey said. “We would have nowhere to live. I would go into debt trying to buy food for my children.”

Several states away, Dee Clarke, 60, expressed similar fears. An advocate for the homeless and survivors of sex trafficking in Portland, Maine, Clarke lives in Section 8 housing and receives Medicaid, $170 a month in food stamps and $760 a month in disability for post-traumatic stress disorder from years of physical and sexual abuse.

She has lived in chronic poverty her entire life, having grown up in a housing project in Boston where she says she was trafficked as a prostitute beginning at 12.

She said many of the women she has met in homeless shelters have backgrounds similar to hers — rife with childhood trauma — but are not able to access some state and federal benefits because of cuts made by Gov. Paul LePage (R). LePage has tightened eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps in his state in a model that many consider a precursor to the measures Trump is proposing.

“The government has been cutting, cutting, cutting for a long time. Soon the safety net won’t be there,” Clarke said. “Poor people don’t count. They’re just pushing us off. They don’t care.”

As for Courtney Bias and her family, they are living on the edge — even without Trump’s proposed cuts. Since November, the two adults and three children — ages 7, 3 and 3 months — have spent $550 per month to live with a friend who has a three-bedroom apartment.

The family can usually cover rent with her boyfriend’s wages, Bias said. But his construction work is unpredictable, and it hasn’t been enough for them to find their own place long term or to cover the full cost of expenses such as groceries and pediatrician appointments. For that, the family relies on Medicaid and SNAP, which issues them $300 in monthly benefits.

Under Trump’s proposals, that amount would fall in half, and the family would receive a box of government-sourced staples to compensate for the cut.

It is less clear how cuts to Medicaid and subsidized housing would impact Bias’s family, though it could increase the length of time they wait for housing assistance. Bias said the family’s constant moves have made it difficult for her daughter to acclimate to school and for her and her boyfriend to hold steady jobs.

“We have to get our own place to get jobs,” she said. “This moving place to place, sleeping on the streets, especially now with young children — we have to fix that before we can do anything else.”