Donald Trump has signed an executive order that sums up how little he
understands about poverty in America.
order, titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting
Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” carries little weight by
itself. It directs a broad range of federal agencies to review
programs serving low-income people and make recommendations on how
they can make the programs harder
all under the guise of “welfare reform.”
order’s main purpose appears to be smearing popular programs in
an effort to make them easier to slash—in part by redefining
“welfare” to encompass nearly every program that helps
families get by. To that end, the order reads as follows:
terms “welfare” and “public assistance”
include any program that provides means-tested assistance, or other
assistance that provides benefits to people, households, or families
that have low incomes (i.e., those making less than twice the Federal
poverty level), the unemployed, or those out of the labor force.
everything from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP,
formerly known as food stamps) to Medicaid to Unemployment Insurance to
child care assistance as “welfare” has long been part of conservatives’
playbook, as my colleague Shawn Fremstad has pointed.The term has a deeply racially charged
history in the United States, evoking decades of racial stereotypes
about poverty and the people who experience it. By using dog-whistle
terms like welfare, Trump is erecting a smokescreen in the shape of
President Reagan’s myth of the “welfare queen”—so we don’t notice that
he’s coming after the entire working and middle class.
fact is, we don’t have welfare in America anymore. What’s
left of America’s tattered safety net is meager at best,
and—contrary to the claim in Trump’s executive order that
it leads to “government dependence”—it’s
light-years away from enough to live on.
the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP provides an
average of just $1.40
per person per meal.
Most families run out of SNAP by the third week of the month because
it’s so far from enough to feed a family on.
there’s housing assistance, which reaches just 1
in 5 eligible
low-income families. Those left without help can spend up to 80
percent of their income on rent and utilities each month, while they
remain on decades-long waitlists for
then there’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF),
the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in
1996 when Congress famously “[ended] welfare as we know
than 1 in 4 poor families with kids get
help from TANF today—down from 80 percent in 1996. In fact, in
several states, kids are more
likely to be placed in foster care than
receive help from TANF.
who do receive TANF are lucky if the benefits even bring them halfway
to the austere federal poverty line. For example, a Tennessee family
of 3 can only receive a maximum of $185 per month, or a little over
$6 a day.
TANF is the program Trump is holding up as a model—hailing 1996
“welfare reform” as a wild success—despite the fact
has proven an abject failure both
in terms of protecting struggling families from hardship and in
helping them get ahead.
particular, this executive order directs agencies to ramp up
so-called “work requirements”—harsh time limits on
assistance for certain unemployed and underemployed workers—which
were at the heart of the law that created TANF. But decades of
research since TANF was enacted show that work
requirements do not help anyone work.
no mistake: Pushing for “work requirements” is at the
core of the conservative strategy to reinforce myths about poverty in
America. That “the poor” are some stagnant group of
people who “just don’t want to work.” That anyone
who wants a well-paying job can snap her fingers to make one appear.
And that having a job is all it takes to not be poor.
in reality, millions of Americans are working two, even three jobs to
make ends meet and provide for their families. Half of Americans are
living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have even $400 in the bank. And
nearly all of us—70 percent—will turn to some form of means-tested assistance, like Medicaid or SNAP, at some point in our lives.
claims his executive order is intended to eliminate “poverty
traps.” But if he knew anything about poverty—aside
he’s learned on Fox News—he’d
know the real poverty trap is the minimum wage, which has stayed
stuck at $7.25 an hour for nearly a decade. That’s well below
the poverty line for a family of two—and not nearly enough to
live on. There isn’t
a single state in
the country in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom
apartment at market rate. Many low-wage workers are forced to turn to
programs like Medicaid and SNAP to make ends meet, because wages
Trump were really trying to promote “self-sufficiency”—a
concept he clearly doesn’t think applies to the millionaires
and billionaires to whom he just gave massive
be all over raising the minimum wage. In fact, raising the minimum
wage just to $12 would save $53
billion in SNAP alone over a decade,
as more low-wage workers would suddenly earn enough to feed their
families without nutrition assistance.
there’s no mention of the minimum wage anywhere in Trump’s
order to “promote opportunity and economic mobility.”
brings us back to the real purpose of this executive order: divide
and his colleagues in Congress learned the hard way last year how
popular Medicaid is when they tried to cut it as part of their quest
to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And it’s not just Medicaid
that Americans don’t want to see cut. Americans overwhelmingly
oppose cuts to
SNAP, housing assistance, Social Security disability benefits, home
heating assistance, and a whole slew of programs that help families
get by—particularly if these cuts are to pay for tax cuts for
the wealthy and corporations. What’s more, as
polling by the Center for American Progress shows,
Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate who backs cuts.
contrast, vast majorities of Americans across party lines want to see
their policymakers raise the minimum wage; ensure affordable,
high-quality child care; and even enact a job guarantee to ensure
everyone who is able and wants to work can find a job with decent
wages. These sentiments extend far beyond the Democratic base to
include majorities of Independents, Republicans, and even Trump’s
why rebranding these programs as welfare is so important to Trump’s
agenda. Rather than heed the wishes of the American people, Trump’s
plan is—yet again—to tap into racial animus and ugly
myths about aid programs in order to pit struggling workers against
one other. That way, he can hide his continued betrayal of the
“forgotten men and women” for whom he famously pledged to
This commentary was originally published by TalkPoverty.org