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Michael A. Cohen

The cruel fictions of the Trump budget

The Congressional Budget Office says the health care bill Republicans pushed through the House this month would leave 23 million additional people uninsured in 2026, compared with former president Barack Obama’s health care law.
The Congressional Budget Office says the health care bill Republicans pushed through the House this month would leave 23 million additional people uninsured in 2026, compared with former president Barack Obama’s health care law.

There are so many ways to describe the policy horror show that is the federal budget plan unveiled yesterday by the Trump administration. But one rather extraordinary contradiction speaks volumes.

According to the Trump administration, the president’s budget, which is titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” — and would cut social safety net spending by more than $1 trillion over the next ten years — will help to replace “dependency with the dignity of work.”

In fact, the president’s spending priorities would not slash the safety net, says Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, but rather would remove poorer Americans from programs that “encourage people not to work.” Undoubtedly, it will also lead to a glorious future in which Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

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In particular, Mulvaney singled out nutrition and disability programs that apparently keep people at home eating Cheetos and faking illnesses when really they should be out earning a paycheck. “If you are on food stamps and you are able-bodied, we need you to go to work,” said Mulvaney. “If you are on disability insurance and you are not supposed to be . . . we need you to go to work.”

Let’s put aside the fact that just under half of all Americans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps) are children, and that the vast majority of the people on the program work for a living.

Let’s also not dwell too much on the fact that among all developed countries, the United States has one of the “most restrictive and least generous” disability benefit programs and that cases of fraud are basically nonexistent.

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Let’s instead, for the sake of argument, just accept Mulvaney’s argument that the biggest problem with federal antipoverty and safety net programs is that they discourage work. Let’s, for just a moment, not quibble with the notion that taking away people’s food stamps and health insurance will encourage them to get good paying jobs.

In this glorious Trump-led future of greater dignity and less dependency, how will Americans find high-paying and reliable jobs? How they will get the skills that they need to make more money and end their reliance on social welfare programs? Maybe they could enter a job training program?

Not so fast.

You see, the Trump budget, besides devastating Medicaid with more than $800 billion in spending cuts, reducing food stamps by more than $190 billion, slashing children’s health insurance by nearly 20 percent, cutting $22 billion from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and $53 billion from unemployment insurance, would . . . wait for it . . . cut federal job training by 40 percent — from $2.7 billion to $1.6 billion. That’s $1.1 billion or, in budgetary terms, about two and a half percent of the $43 billion in new spending that Trump is proposing for the Pentagon.

Here’s the thing: If you draft a budget nominally geared toward helping get people off government social programs and at the same time make it harder for them to get the training necessary to find a better job, it’s pretty clear that helping people learn the dignity of work is not your priority.

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Since presidential budget proposals tend to be dead on arrival when they’re sent to Capitol Hill, Trump’s spending plan is as much a wish list as anything else — a detailed reflection of the Republican Party’s ideological opposition to any and all government spending. That this ideology would lead to monstrously, even cartoonishly, evil policies like cutting job training, food stamps, and health care, while cutting taxes for rich people, probably makes this a good time to go back to the ideological drawing board.

This is perhaps the one positive that can be found in Trump’s budget: It has zero chance of being passed by Congress. Even ideological conservatives are likely to blanche at the political fallout of supporting such spending cuts. In fact, it’s hard to see what exactly the point of it is – unless the Trump political team has identified a segment of voters looking for a politician who reminds them of Ebenezer Scrooge.

But this is nonetheless an instructive moment. When tasked with producing a budget, the Trump administration has produced a spending plan that would wreak untold harm on the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens — while cutting taxes for the wealthiest among us.

A new foundation for American greatness . . . is more like a new foundation for American cruelty.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.