People in poverty are used to being treated as “less than.”
They are used to others assuming the worst about their character. They are used to being judged—to their motives being questioned. And they are used to their behavior being surveilled—by the state, by the media, and by strangers—for what they eat, who they love, how they parent, how they enjoy themselves, anything: What’s in her groceries? How can they afford that? Why doesn’t he have a job?
Donald Trump proposes to take this hostility to a new level by simply redefining people in poverty out of existence. This week, the White House Office of Management and Budget proposed a change to the way the government calculates poverty. The result? Millions of working-poor people would no longer be counted as poor. Trump could claim credit as the president who reduced poverty and, more significantly, eventually millions of people would no longer qualify for the assistance programs they need. It’s not only people currently below the poverty line who could be thrown out of programs like food stamps and Medicaid, but also people just above it—like children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school.
Already, our commitment to helping people in poverty is a pretty bad joke. We established a standard by which people should get help with housing, but only 1 in 4 households eligible for federal rental assistance actually receives it. We say we want people to be able to work and so established a standard for providing child-care assistance, but then only about one in six eligible children receives it. We say no one should be hungry, and that every child should be able to eat so they are ready to learn, and then we stick to a food-assistance plan that the United States Department of Agriculture described all the way back in 1933 as designed for “restricted diets for emergency use.” As a result, the average benefit is just $1.40 per person, per meal. And perhaps most obviously damning, we maintain a federal minimum wage that is a poverty wage, telling people that no matter how much we need their labor, no matter how much their employer profits—this crap wage is enough for you. And this is just how we treat any poor person; it doesn’t even begin to capture how we treat people of color, and particularly women of color.
Still, this hostility doesn’t suffice for Trump. From the start, his administration has sent a clear signal to people who are struggling: If you need health care, or food, or housing, it’s because you don’t know the value of work. And so the administration has pushed states to add new work requirements and time limits to safety-net programs, putting the little assistance people are able to receive in jeopardy. Around 20,000 people in Arkansas recently lost Medicaid because of the state’s new work requirements, and up to 183,000 are expected to lose coverage under a new plan in Michigan. More than 13,000 people in Kentucky lost food assistance. Then there’s a new administration proposal to evict undocumented immigrants from public housing, which could displace more than 55,000 children, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the proposal on how to calculate poverty itself would go further still. In effect, it’s a verdict that says: You are no longer in poverty. You don’t need any help. You are off the radar.
If there is a silver lining—and there really isn’t if this proposal goes through—it would be that this move should awaken in many people an awareness of what a responsible change in how we respond to poverty might look like. At a minimum, we should live up to the standards we’ve set on necessities like housing and child care so that eligible people actually receive assistance. But why not go further than that? Why not insist that we end the poverty wage now? Why not examine the proliferation of low-wage jobs, and look at job quality and insist on standards for humane practices like paid leave and fair schedules, and enforce labor standards? How about refusing to accept public schools that are separate and unequal, segregated by race, class, and quality? Why not put an end to the dumping of toxics in poor communities and end policies that isolate them through zoning codes, disinvestment, and a lack of transportation? Why not declare, at long last, that everyone in a nation as obscenely rich as ours should have a right to health care, food, housing, income security, education—the things we all need to survive and thrive?
Why not insist that everyone has a right to live—visibly and without shame?