A public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Columnist

We tend to associate the word “brutality” with physical violence, especially violence at the hands of the state. It calls to mind police shootings, torture and war. But there is another form of brutality that is less apparent to the naked eye — the brutality of policy.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has announced policy proposals that appear to serve little purpose other than cruelty. For example, the Labor Department is apparently planning to roll back child labor protections that limit the hours that teenagers can spend performing dangerous jobs, such as operating chainsaws and trash compactors. The agency risibly described its proposal as an effort to “launch more family-sustaining careers by removing current regulatory restrictions” in a summary of the draft regulation obtained by Bloomberg Law. Worker and child labor advocates, however, credit the rules with significant reductions in the number of teenagers who are injured or killed.

After blowing up the deficit with tax cuts for corporations and the rich, the White House is now using the pretense of fiscal responsibility to ask Congress to cut $15 billion in approved spending, including some $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The program, which provides health coverage for 9 million low-income kids and pregnant mothers, was extended for a decade earlier this year after Republicans allowed funding to expire last fall amid their attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In defense of its request, the Trump administration has claimed that cuts would come from funds that are unlikely to be spent. If that’s the case, however, then “there are no savings,” as Georgetown Law professor David Super has noted. This means that Trump’s plan, should Congress approve it, will either accomplish nothing or will deprive children and families in need of care.

In another act of cruelty, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson put forward a proposal last month that would triple the minimum rent paid by the poorest Americans living in federally subsidized housing. In addition to raising the minimum rent from $50 to $150 a month, Carson’s plan would allow housing authorities to impose work requirements and eliminate deductions for expenses such as child and medical care. Insisting that “the current system isn’t working very well” and “doing nothing is not an option,” Carson seems set on making life harder for the poorest residents of public housing. His plan would affect an estimated 460,000 single mothers and could result in nearly 1 million children becoming homeless, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues its aggressive and inhumane purge of immigrants that is tearing apart families across the country. CNN recently highlighted the story of one couple who lived in the United States for 30 years and reported to regular ICE check-ins for the past 10 until they were deported in December, leaving behind three American-born children and a mortgage. Their 22-year-old daughter was forced to stop attending college classes to help pay the bills and support her 15-year-old brother. And last week, the administration announced that it intends to inflict further pain on immigrant families with a new policy that would separate parents and children who are detained attempting to cross the border. In an interview with NPR, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly dismissed concerns about the impact that this heartless policy would have on young children, saying, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

This is only a partial reflection of the extent of the Trump administration’s brutal policies toward poor Americans and people of color (not to mention the rise in civilian casualties resulting from Trump’s increasing use of military force in the Middle East). And of course, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and congressional Republicans have waged their own years-long crusade to eviscerate the safety net for the poor, including the ongoing push to slash food-stamp benefits.

These are just some of the conditions being protested by the new Poor People’s Campaign, which launched 40 days of coordinated action at a recent rally in Washington. The Rev. William J. Barber II, one of the PPC’s leaders, says that Trump’s cruel policies have given the campaign momentum, but he has also made it clear that the movement is bigger than politics; it’s about addressing the “deeper moral malady” that has infected America. As Barber declared in an impassioned sermon at the campaign’s launch, “When you have policies that take away the human rights of the poor and make women and children prey, then you have a nation that can’t survive.”

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