The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration has a new argument for dismantling the social safety net: It worked.

Protesters display signs and listen to speakers during the Poor People’s Campaign, a rally speaking out against social injustice and poverty, on the Mall in Washington last month. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a statement to Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, that no more than 250,000 Americans are in “extreme poverty.” The statement was made by the Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva

Republicans for years have proclaimed the federal government’s decades-old War on Poverty a failure.

“Americans are no better off today than they were before the War on Poverty began in 1964,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wrote in his 2016 plan to dramatically scale back the federal safety net.

Now the Trump administration is pitching a new message on anti-poverty programs, saying efforts that Republicans had long condemned as ineffective have already worked.

The White House in a report this week declared the War on Poverty “largely over and a success,” arguing that few Americans are truly poor — only about 3 percent of the population — and that the booming economy is the best path upward for those who remain in poverty.

“Over the past 54 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty, federal spending on welfare programs targeting low-income households has grown dramatically, contributing to a substantial reduction in material hardship,” the White House Council of Economic Advisers wrote, saying that poverty had fallen by 90 percent since the programs began.

“None of these statistics is intended to deny the ways in which millions of Americans sometimes struggle to make ends meet,” the economic advisers wrote, but “the vast majority of Americans are able to meet their basic human needs.”

The report is the latest in a string of Trump administration efforts to argue that poverty is a diminishing problem in the United States.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last month denounced a U.N. report saying 18.5 million Americans suffer extreme impoverishment as “misleading and politically motivated.” The Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva told the U.N. Human Rights Council that no more than 250,000 Americans are in “extreme poverty.”

Thursday’s White House report marks a departure from decades of GOP rhetoric, party veterans say.

“We argued over dollar figures and whether people had to work or not. We never argued over the fact we had a problem,” said Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff to Olympia Snowe when the Maine Republican was in Congress. “I can’t remember Republicans ever saying, ‘We’ve defeated poverty and can just move on now.’ ”

The new messaging comes as the White House and Republicans in Congress pursue their long-held goal of adding work requirements for recipients of food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies. At a time of low unemployment and high job vacancies, able-bodied enrollees in federal assistance programs can best escape poverty by getting jobs, Republicans say.

Critics contend that White House officials and other Republicans are massively understating the scope of American poverty, saying GOP plans to impose work requirements will hurt the most vulnerable beneficiaries of social programs.

Estimates of American poverty vary widely, and experts have a range of measures to assess who counts as poor.

The most recent census data says that in 2016, 12.7 percent of Americans — about 41 million people — were in poverty compared with 19 percent in 1964. A separate census measure, known as the “supplemental” poverty rate, takes into account federal assistance flowing to households as well as regional differences in cost of living. By that measure, about 14 percent of Americans are in poverty.

Rather than measuring resources coming into households, conservative scholars prefer to use “consumption” statistics that rely on surveys of how much people report spending. Using the spending measure, poverty is closer to the 3 percent figure Trump’s economic council used, said Robert Rector, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Poverty measured by consumption has fallen dramatically since the 1990s, while data from the Census Bureau shows poverty remaining relatively flat.

Some moderate Republicans see the Trump administration’s new messaging as a welcome nod to the role that social programs have played in reducing poverty, as well as a concession to the realities of governing.

“When you really have to govern, you’re much more willing to recognize that some efforts on the part of government have been successful,” said Robert Doar, a scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute who was a commissioner for social service agencies under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It’s different than the previous rhetoric that says all government efforts to reduce poverty have been a failure, and I think it’s closer to reality and more sensible.”

And some conservatives note that the White House advisers’ report, in some areas, remains consistent with GOP orthodoxy of having more Americans working rather than dependent on government help. The report says the gains from the expanded welfare state “came at the cost of discouraging self-sufficiency.”

Critics are skeptical of the administration’s new rhetoric on poverty and remain opposed to Republicans’ plans for addressing it.

“It’s an opportunistic frame to try to advance the same end,” said Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell University whose new book examines Americans’ experiences with federal social policies. “It is ironic. For ages they’ve been saying it’s a failure, and suddenly they are trying to declare victory and call it all off.”

Critics say that work requirements impose additional barriers to receiving health care and food for those who need such assistance. And they accuse the administration of underestimating the difficulty of climbing out of poverty, even in a robust economy.

Most people who can work are already working or are looking for employment, the critics say, adding that the problem is that the jobs available to that group do not pay a living wage.

In May, the Federal Reserve released a report that said 4 in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

About 70 percent of Americans turn to a means-tested federal program at some point in their lives, according to Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Anti-poverty advocates cite the lack of health insurance for more than 25 million Americans as evidence that far more people suffer from material deprivation. They also point to a study by Princeton University economist Angus Deaton that found about 5.3 million Americans live on less than $4 a day, including government assistance.

Amid the debate over the scope of U.S. poverty, the White House and Republicans have begun the early stages of their proposed changes to anti-poverty programs.

Trump signed an executive order in April directing federal agencies to draw up recommendations on how to expand work requirements for low-income Americans who receive government aid.

Later that month, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson proposed tripling rent for the poorest households that receive federal housing subsidies and making it easier for local housing authorities and Section 8 property owners to impose work requirements, among a number of sweeping changes.

“Every year, it takes more money, millions of dollars more, to serve the same number of households,” Carson said at the time. “It’s clear from a budget perspective and a human point of view that the current system is unsustainable.”

The Trump administration has already for the first time approved new work requirements for Medicaid. So far, the administration has approved work requirements for four states — Arkansas, New Hampshire, Indiana and Kentucky — although Kentucky’s proposal was rejected by a judge last month. Seven other states also have asked the administration for permission to impose work requirements.

The House of Representatives in June narrowly passed a farm bill that includes additional work requirements for the food stamp program, which is used by 42 million Americans. But the provisions, which require most adults to work part-time or enroll in job training as a condition of receiving benefits, stand little chance of passing the Senate in a compromise bill.