The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s War on the Poor has just begun

A sign promoting the SNAP program, or food stamps, at a bus stop in Woonsocket, R.I.
A sign promoting the SNAP program, or food stamps, at a bus stop in Woonsocket, R.I. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Karen Dolan is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Mission accomplished in the “War on Poverty.” So declares the White House, which in a white paper released last week from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers claims that the war is “largely over and a success” and that it is time for more stringent work requirements for public assistance.

Never mind all the decades President Trump’s party has spent trashing anti-poverty programs to justify shredding them: The new narrative states that these programs have worked so well that U.S. poverty has been all but eradicated.

The programs stemming from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 initiative have indeed improved the lives of millions of Americans. A Columbia University study found that poverty would be much worse today had it not been for food assistance, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid and the expansion of Social Security benefits.

But the scourge of poverty isn’t over in the world’s wealthiest nation. The Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure shows that more than 45 million people (14 percent of us) were impoverished in 2016. The rates are even higher for children under age 18 and seniors.

But that’s only the beginning. Almost 100 million more live at 200 percent of the poverty line, a more accurate indicator of a family’s ability to make ends meet.

All told, around 43 percent of us are poor or low-income, a report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the Poor People’s Campaign found. And nearly half of all U.S. citizens would be unable to afford a $400 emergency, as per a 2016 Federal Reserve study. Disproportionately affected are people of color, Native Americans, people with disabilities, single mothers, children and transgender people.

In cynically declaring the War on Poverty a success, the Trump administration is attempting to justify its War on Poor People. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently proposed tripling rents on those receiving housing benefits and imposing work requirements. The GOP-controlled House passed a farm bill that would add onerous work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps.

And this spring, Trump signed an executive order declaring his intention to force people who receive food assistance, Medicaid and low-income housing subsidies to adhere to strict work requirements or lose their critical subsistence benefits. Perversely titled “Reducing Poverty in America,” this directive aims to remove access to the same assistance programs that have alleviated the effects of poverty.

Food and nutrition assistance, Medicaid and subsidized housing have actually proved highly effective. Most of the people receiving these benefits who are able to work do work — but in jobs with low pay, no benefits and unpredictable schedules.

Block granting and strict work requirements on cash-assistance programs have already put that help out of reach for many families, leaving them unable to afford basic necessities. To do the same to noncash assistance programs — such as for those that provide food, housing or health care — would put those things out of reach for the families who need them most.

It’s not a question of funds. We’re a nation of riches, but those riches benefit only those at the top. Starting in the 1970s, the IPS-Poor People’s Campaign report found, employers no longer shared the benefits of increased productivity with the workers who produced it. Between 1973 and 2016, hourly wages grew by about 12 percent, while productivity increased by nearly 74 percent.

Further, so-called right-to-work laws have systematically dismantled workers’ collective bargaining power to negotiate fairer wages and better working conditions. And a surge of voter suppression laws are keeping many of those most affected by these policies — such as the poor and people of color — away from the polls.

Meanwhile, the United States now spends more on the military than it did even at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars.

To stop the War on Poor People, we need a moral movement. We need good jobs that pay a living wage. We need an accurate assessment of who is poor — based on things such as adequate housing, health care, water, sanitation, child care, sufficient wages and assistance when needed. And we need to look critically at how poverty goes hand in hand with social forces such as racism, militarism and environmental destruction.

What we don’t need is a declaration of a victory against poverty from the same people who have been trying to dismantle anti-poverty programs for decades.

Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: ‘Stop acting as though Trump is the first,’ says the Rev. William Barber

Megan McArdle: Did we win the War on Poverty?

Paul Waldman: The Republican war on struggling Americans takes another cruel turn

Seema Verma: Making Medicaid a pathway out of poverty

Robert J. Samuelson: Is ending poverty impossible?

Robert E. Rubin: Why hurting the poor will hurt the economy