To the long list of lies President Trump thinks he can make true just by repeating them (“The largest audience ever,” “North Korea has agreed to denuclearization,” “I didn’t criticize the prime minister”), we can now add this: “Our war on poverty is largely over, and a success.”
That’s the verbatim conclusion of a new study produced by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors in order to justify new work requirements on Medicaid, public housing, and food stamp recipients. Never mind that 32 percent of all Medicaid dollars go to nursing home patients, and nearly half of food stamp recipients are children — neither population likely to punch a time clock anytime soon. And never mind that able-bodied adults without children already must work for their food stamps. The Trump administration is gunning for federal safety net programs, and if it takes denying the existence of 45 million Americans in poverty to rationalize their disintegration, so be it.
The report makes two dubious claims. First, traditional measures of poverty are all wrong, and under a novel “consumption-based measure’’ the nation’s poverty level can be redefined down to three percent of the population, instead of the 14 percent in the most recent US census. Rather than measuring a family’s well-being based on its income, the consumption measure looks at how much a family spends: on rent, utilities, food, cars and other durable goods. But this overstates wealth by not counting a family’s debt, or whether housing costs are eating up most of their income. As many as 19 million households spend more than half their income on the roof over their heads. Paying a king’s ransom in rent does not make someone a king.
The other claim is that 60 percent of those receiving aid are not working more than 20 hours a week. But this figure was arrived at by looking at just a single month in 2013. The truth is that most low-income people go on and off food stamps or other assistance programs based on whether they have a job at the time. Naturally it’s more likely that people receiving benefits would be out of work at that moment. A more accurate accounting would look at whether aid recipients work over the course of a year or years, in which case the numbers would be much higher.
The report includes the usual palaver about the value of self-sufficiency and the dignity of work. But if Trump’s administration truly believed that, it would not be looking to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit, which literally makes work pay. It might invest in job training or increase subsidies for child care. And it would certainly back an increase in the pitifully low federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour and not increased for nine years. At that rate, a single mother of two would need to work 55 hours a week — hardly slacking — to lift herself above the poverty line. But no, this administration would rather punish poor people than offer proven incentives to work.
Beyond the analytical fantasy in the CEA report are questions of values and vision. What kind of nation do we want to be? One that offers modest support to people down on their luck, caught in a changing labor market that doesn’t provide health insurance, job security, or pay a living wage? Or one where we decide poverty is a weakness of character and not that big a problem anyway?
The Trump administration can simply declare that people with a car or color TV are not materially destitute, but when the car is repossessed and the TV and other possessions are on the curb after a family is evicted, the picture isn’t so rosy. Trump didn’t win the war on poverty. He surrendered.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.