In recent months, the speed and force with which the Trump administration and conservative lawmakers have moved to make the lives of people with low incomes harder has been stunning and disorienting.
To name a few damaging policy initiatives: a proposal to punish immigrants for participating in programs like Head Start; closing a Department of Justice office that was created to make legal aid more accessible; repealing guidance to judges that suggested they consider an individual’s ability to pay a fine before allowing her to languish in jail; imposing work requirements and time limits on people who need assistance with health care, housing, or food.
Two experts who have been deeply immersed in anti-poverty policy throughout their careers agree that since the Johnson administration launched its Great Society programs in the 1960s there has never been a more politically dangerous moment for those who are struggling to make ends meet in America.
“We’ve been through things before that we thought couldn’t get worse. But this right now is just one of a kind,” says Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman. Edelman has worked on poverty for more than 50 years—including as an aide to Senator Robert Kennedy and as an assistant secretary in the Clinton administration, a post he resigned in protest of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, known as “welfare reform.”
Dr. Alice O’Connor, a historian at the University of California–Santa Barbara and one of the foremost scholars on the history of poverty in the United States, notes that the Reagan years and the dismantling of income assistance under President Bill Clinton “were pretty damn bad for people in poverty. But what’s happening now is breathtaking.”
It’s an exceptional moment, but one Edelman and O’Connor say was decades in the making, the way paved during the Reagan and Clinton administrations in particular. Fortunately, it’s also a moment we know how to respond to.
The Reagan Years
The Reagan years, Edelman says, were thought to be a new low because the administration was “devilishly knowledgeable” about how to use reconciliation—a procedural tactic that at that time was brand new to most advocates—to overcome Democratic filibusters of bills gutting various social programs. Reagan enacted deep cuts to income assistance, food stamps, health care, Head Start, and more—though, Edelman notes, “fighting back did at least preserve the general framework of the assistance programs.”
O’Connor adds that the combination of deep cuts to assistance programs and the accompanying tax cuts for the rich were like “an overwhelming one-two punch.” Moreover, Reagan’s “willingness to simply ride out the [1981–82] recession”—the deepest since the Great Depression—and his unwillingness to support economic stimulus measures dramatically undermined the prospects for working-class families, while fostering long-term wage decline and increasing income inequality. The result was a rise in the number of people homeless or considered to be among the “working poor.”
Perhaps the most damaging impact of the Reagan years was the popularization of a narrative that described people in poverty as dependent, fraudulent, or unable to rise due to their own character flaws. There was also an unmistakable racialization of poverty politics that portrayed African Americans as unfairly benefiting from federal largesse. Lee Atwater, advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, described this tactic as a way to get the white vote: Republicans could no longer use the n-word, he said: “that hurts you—backfires.” Instead, they would tell anecdotes about caricatured people of color abusing assistance, and talk about cracking down on so-called fraud.
It wasn’t only the GOP that was responsible for this shift in framing. In her book Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History, O’Connor writes that liberal analysts “played an active part in making family structure and ‘dependency’ the issues in poverty policy while failing to address the problems of employment, wages, and growing inequality.” This liberal-conservative “consensus” set the stage for President Clinton and the Gingrich Congress to deliver an even bigger blow to families in poverty.
President Clinton and the Gingrich Congress
In 1996, Edelman resigned from the Clinton administration in protest of the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which dismantled cash income assistance to families. He predicted that imposing new time limits on benefits, and giving states nearly complete control over the money, would make aid harder to obtain and increase hardship. Edelman was prescient: When the legislation was signed, 68 of every 100 families with children in poverty received cash income assistance; in 2016 that number was just 23. In many states TANF assistance is now virtually nonexistent and a growing number of families live on less than $2 a day.
For O’Connor, the lasting damage of the Clinton years included the neoliberal embrace of a punitive approach to policy-making, which precluded an examination of the structural drivers of poverty, including globalization, attacks on unions, stagnant wages, and disinvestment in struggling communities. “President Clinton put into place a template of work requirements that is now embraced by so-called moderates, but in fact is all about denying people the work supports and social supports that are needed in our economy,” says O’Connor.
Enter Donald Trump
To understand how precarious this political moment is for people with low incomes, O’Connor and Edelman suggest looking at the recent Trump budget. While it’s not expected to pass this Congress, it is an indication of where conservatives would lead with just a few more right-wing votes. (Edelman reminds us that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act was defeated in the Senate by just two votes.)
Trump’s budget would cut more than $300 billion from Medicaid, taking away health care from millions of people; $200 billion from student aid; and $200 billon from the SNAP program (food assistance), which currently has an average benefit of just $1.40 per person per meal. It would cut rental assistance—which currently reaches only one in four eligible families—jeopardizing more than 500,000 subsidized households, and eliminate the fund for public-housing repairs, even though there is a backlog of between $26 billion and $40 billion to fix things like leaky roofs and bad wiring. It eliminates the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps at least 6 million households with utility bills. It cuts $72 billion from federal disability programs, saving less than the cost of Republicans’ recently passed tax cut for heirs of multimillion-dollar estates.
Many of the administration’s policies would have a particularly harmful effect on people of color. The Civil Rights division at the Department of Justice being has been upended—consent agreements with local police departments to address issues like racial profiling and excessive force have been thrown out; cases have been dropped, and others not pursued. Gerrymandering and voter suppression insulate the right from electoral blowback. Trump’s nativism and racism, evident in his administration’s immigration policies, represent an ongoing attempt to exploit the economic anxieties of white people who never recovered from the Great Recession. All of this leaves people of color more vulnerable than anyone to the current state of affairs.
What most concerns O’Connor is that, after decades of effort to eviscerate safety-net programs, conservatives know exactly what they are doing. “The level of viciousness against the working class is unprecedented,” says O’Connor. “[Republicans] have studied how to do this budget slashing, and race-baiting, and policy framing,” she continues. “And now they have a huge amount of power and money to act swiftly and without transparency. None of us should have any illusion about what we’re up against and just how dire it is.”
For O’Connor and Edelman, the first step to fighting back involves organizing to stop the immediate threats, which includes direct action and electoral organizing. The second step is more daunting—it involves undoing decades of policy and racially coded messaging. And it means replacing it with a vision of a fair economy that inspires people to stay engaged when the house isn’t on fire.
Edelman sees the ongoing debate about whether to focus on the multiracial Democratic base or the white working class as a serious but unnecessary obstacle. “There are a lot of things that attract everyone—like creating good jobs that pay a decent wage, and access to affordable housing, childcare, and college. At the same time, race has its own integrity as an issue. It’s unacceptable to walk away from that in order to get white votes.”
O’Connor is concerned about Democrats’ lack of big ideas to organize around. “A job guarantee? A right to housing?” she asks. “Let’s start defining what exactly our agenda looks like.” Without an agenda that centers poverty and repudiates a punitive approach to policy, O’Connor worries that Democrats would be satisfied with a return to power and an economy that leaves millions of people with jobs that don’t pay enough to make ends meet, much less get ahead.
But in the meantime, the party in power is launching an exceptional bid to cut what remains of basic assistance for struggling Americans. There are signs that the kind of organizing that O’Connor and Edelman call for is emerging—from ADAPT’s direct action and Indivisible’s dominance of town-hall meetingss to help thwart the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the ever-expanding Fight for $15 and the right to organize; from the HandsOff coalition’s showing how proposed cuts would impact people’s lives to the new Poor People’s Campaign, which in May will kick off 40 days of direct action in at least 25 states.
These efforts and many more must be supported. Otherwise the Reagan years may seem like a bastion of equality and opportunity compared to the new normal.