The GOP’s War on the Poor

Four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, House Republicans led by Paul Ryan issued a report declaring that war a failure. Poverty, they asserted, hadn’t fallen. Therefore, they concluded, we must slash spending on the poor.

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Paul Krugman
, New York Times

Four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, House Republicans led by Paul Ryan issued a report declaring that war a failure. Poverty, they asserted, hadn’t fallen. Therefore, they concluded, we must slash spending on the poor.

Last week, Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a new report on poverty, recognizing what most experts in the field have said: The standard poverty measure is badly flawed, and a better measure shows substantial progress. In fact, these advisers went so far as to assert that poverty is no longer a problem. (Do these people ever get out into the real world?)

Anyway, the war on poverty, said the report, “is largely over and a success.” And our response, says the Trump administration, should be to ... slash spending on the poor.

OK, the report doesn’t openly call for benefit cuts. Instead, it calls for the widespread imposition of work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps and other programs. But that would have the effect of sharply reducing those programs’ coverage.

This decline in coverage wouldn’t be the result of large numbers of people earning their way out of poverty. Instead, many poor Americans would, for a variety of reasons — poor health, job instability for low-wage workers, daunting paperwork imposed on those least able to deal with it — find it impossible to meet the requirements, and be denied aid despite remaining poor.

So whatever the evidence, Republicans always reach the same policy conclusion. Was the war on poverty a failure? Let’s stop helping the poor. Was it a success? Let’s stop helping the poor.

And let’s be clear: We’re talking about the whole party, not just the Trump administration. In particular, Republican governors are fanatical about cutting benefits for their lower-income residents.

In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin tried to impose harsh work requirements on Medicaid. When a court ruled that his plan violated the law, he retaliated by abruptly cutting off vision and dental coverage for hundreds of thousands of people.

In Maine, voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. But Gov. Paul LePage has refused to implement the expansion — a vast majority of which would be paid for with federal funds — despite a court order, and has declared that he’s willing to go to jail rather than see his constituents get health care.

So what’s behind the GOP’s war on the poor?

It’s not about incentives. The persistent claim on the right that America is filled with “takers” living off social programs when they should be working may be what conservatives want to believe, but it just isn’t true. Most nondisabled adults receiving aid work; most of those who don’t have good reasons for not working, such as health issues or the need to serve as caretakers for family members. Slashing benefits would push some of these people into the workforce out of sheer desperation, but not many, and at a huge cost to their well-being.

And claims that excessively generous social programs are the cause of falling labor force participation can be easily refuted by looking at the international evidence. Europe’s welfare states — or, as conservatives always say, its “failing” welfare states — provide much more generous aid to low-income families than we do, and as a result have much less poverty. Yet adults in their prime working years are more likely to be employed in leading European nations than in the United States.

It’s also not about the money. At the state level, many Republican governors are still refusing to expand Medicaid even though it would cost them little and would bring money into their states’ economies. At the federal level, it would take draconian benefit cuts, imposing immense suffering, to save as much money as the GOP casually gave away in last year’s tax cut.

What about the traditional answer that it’s really about race? Social programs have often been seen as helping Those People, not white Americans. And that’s still surely part of what’s going on.

But it can’t be the whole story, since Republicans are fanatical about cutting off aid to the less fortunate even in places like Maine that are overwhelmingly populated by non-Hispanic whites.

So what is the war on the poor about? As I see it, you need to make a distinction between what motivates the GOP base and what motivates conservative politicians.

Many blue-collar whites still think that the poor are lazy and prefer to live off welfare. But as events in Maine show, such beliefs aren’t central to the war on the poor, which is mainly being driven by political elites.

And what motivates these elites is ideology. Their political identities, not to mention their careers, are wrapped up in the notion that more government is always bad. So they oppose programs that help the poor partly out of a general hostility toward “takers,” but also because they hate the idea of government helping anyone.

And if they get their way, society will stop helping tens of millions of Americans who desperately need that help.

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