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.