During the first year of the Trump administration, the word “unprecedented” has been used so many times it has almost lost its meaning. But there simply is no other word to describe this presidency. First and foremost, there is the unprecedented degree to which the administration has attacked the country’s institutions in ways that threaten the foundations of our democracy. But this first year is also unique because of the unforgiving extent to which the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have leveled legislative assaults against poor people.
1. Attempts to Repeal the Affordable Care Act
Perhaps no issue is more indicative of this Congress’s hostility toward poor Americans than the slew of legislation introduced to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. After the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), Senate Republicans took their own stab at dismantling the ACA, culminating in the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). Like their counterparts in the House, Senate Republicans suggested repealing the ACA’s taxes, restructuring its subsidies, eventually ending the Medicaid expansion and empowering states to opt out of some of the ACA’s mandated insurance features. BCRA tied the distribution of subsidies back to income, but in a reversal of the ACA, capped eligibility at 350 percent of the poverty line rather than 400 percent beginning in 2020.
To add insult to injury, subsidies would be much smaller—premiums for a mid-level plan for a 64-year-old who earned $26,500 a year could have skyrocketed by 2026 to $6,500. And that’s after the subsidies kicked in.
Between the lower subsidy limit and the less generous benchmark plan, poor Americans would have ended up paying more for lower quality insurance plans with premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs so high they might have foregone a plan altogether. That’s especially true for patients with pre-existing conditions. Without mandates to cover “essential health benefits,” the BCRA, like the AHCA, empowered insurance companies to offer skimpy plans covering only the bare minimum, rendering them useless to those with serious health issues. Healthy Americans would have flocked to those plans, leaving sicker patients in segregated markets characterized by high-cost plans (but ones that actually meet their health needs). Thus, even as the Senate promised to protect people with pre-existing conditions, its plan would have propelled them into bankruptcy in order to keep their insurance coverage.
Projections from the Congressional Budget Office anticipated that the BCRA would result in adding 22 million people to the ranks of the uninsured.
2. Draconian Trump Budget
Where candidate Trump promised economic renewal for the “forgotten” working class, President Trump delivered a proposal for drastic cuts to many of the social programs that protect those Americans from financial ruin.
Suggested cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development totaling $6 billion threatened housing assistance programs with services critical to poor families. The Community Development Block Grant Program, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and the Housing Choice Vouchers program were to be completely eliminated. Furthermore, direct rental assistance payments (like Section 8 Housing) were to be cut by $300 million; housing for the elderly (including the Section 202 program) was to lose $42 million in funding; and Section 811 housing for Americans with disabilities was slated to lose $29 million.
Most infamously, the Trump administration proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels, a beloved program that provides millions of meals each year to poor Americans.
Even children weren’t spared; funding cuts were proposed for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, which provides nutrition education, breastfeeding education, and most critically, food vouchers for poor children and their mothers. The administration recommended completely eliminating the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a partnership between the federal government and schools, churches and nonprofits that services 1.6 million children across the country, most of whom are poor.
Congress declined to accept the Trump administration’s specific budget, which also included $193 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), $21 billion in cuts to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and $877 billion in cuts to Medicaid over the next 10 years. But it offered an equally hostile alternative vision. In October, Congress passed a budget resolution that, though unlikely to ever become law, loosely codifies its budget and policy priorities in ways that starve the social safety net.
After failing to undermine the federal government’s role in health care via legislative means, Republicans in Congress opted to use another tool at their disposal: the budget. The budget resolution wielded a hatchet against Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. Over the course of 10 years, Medicare alone stands to lose $473 billion. Medicaid and the ACA, among other non-Medicare health programs, would collectively see cuts that climb to $1.3 trillion over the next decade only to increase further in the years afterward.
Room was made for other cuts to SNAP, Supplemental Security Income, the earned income tax credit, unemployment insurance, and the pension funds for military and civilian federal employees. These cuts exceeded $650 billion over the next 10 years with additional increases expected down the line.
Few specifics were offered within the budget resolution, but previous iterations from the Trump administration and the House indicate that Republicans viewed SNAP as especially fertile ground for attack. Both suggested cuts to SNAP to the tune of $140 billion until 2027. The effects of this, should the cuts be accommodated exclusively by excising the enrollment roster, would lead to between nine and 10 million fewer SNAP recipients.
Even if not a single proposed cut to the social safety net comes to fruition, the budget resolution accomplished one thing: it pushed the Republican tax bill closer to reality.
3. Tax Cuts Spurred by Class Warfare
Failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act made tax reform a political imperative for congressional Republicans. The classist undertones that came to characterize the health care proposals were duplicated in the tax plans offered by both houses of Congress, amounting to massive redistributions of federal money from the poorest Americans to the wealthiest and corporations.
The final version of the bill, which has yet to receive a name, permanently reduces the tax burden on corporations and owners of “pass-through” businesses, temporarily cuts taxes on individuals, expands the child tax credit, increases the standard deduction, and repeals the estate tax. Cutting the corporate tax, which can be thought of as a tax on capital, favors those whose income comes from capital: the wealthy. As profits from pass-through companies are treated as personal income, cutting the pass-through tax could empower wealthy Americans to create new pass-through companies or use those they already own to protect their income from otherwise high rates of taxation.
The result, according to the Tax Policy Center, is that 83 percent of the benefits accrue to the top one percent by 2027. Meanwhile, poor Americans, who were ostensibly meant to benefit from the proposed increase to the child credit for individuals, actually lose out compared to the wealthy thanks to the eventual expiration of that credit.
Access to the tax credit refund is denied to extremely poor people who make less than $3,000 in annual income.
The bill repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate to result in a $338 billion health care cut that distributes money toward the rich and away from the poor, who would be among the 13 million Americans without health care coverage by 2027.
Cuts to individual taxes, like the other changes, also disproportionately favor the wealthy. By 2025, a person in the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers would save $60 (in raw dollar amounts) under the Senate bill, while someone in the top 0.1 percent would save $121,060. Those figures fail to take into account income potentially lost thanks to the repeal of the individual mandate.
Put another way, the cuts for some groups and resultant hikes for others mean, according to the CBO, that those making less than $10,000 each year lose, as a group, $8.7 billion by 2027, and those making more than $1 million collectively gain $15.8 billion.
4. What 2018 May Bring
Fresh off their “win” on the tax bill, congressional Republicans have already begun floating the possibility of cutting the social safety net to finance the corporate welfarist intentions of the bill. Under the guise of supplementing the tax bill as an additional stimulant to the economy, some Republicans have called for the need to impose new restrictions on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and housing assistance.
Support already existed within the White House for such cuts. The Trump administration’s appetite for such cuts was mirrored by the Republican-controlled Congress: conservative budget architects in the House began looking toward the social safety net as early as May to fund some of the president’s expensive initiatives, including an infrastructure overhaul and the border wall that was the central promise of his campaign. No specifics were given, but SNAP, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and veterans’ benefits were offered as potential options.
Although candidate Trump promised that his presidential administration would not touch Social Security or Medicare, House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled in May that he intended to pursue a plan to reform Medicare. A previous iteration of Ryan’s plan would convert Medicare into a voucher system, in which both private insurance and traditional Medicare coverage are options, that would do away with a guaranteed level of coverage, raise the age of eligibility, and increase income-related premiums.
Outside the context of either tax bill, the White House and Congress took concrete steps to chip away at the social safety net. Drafts for an executive order demanding an internal review of the programs that comprise the social safety net have already been drawn up. States, in the meantime, have received encouragement from the White House to attach new work requirements to Medicaid recipients. Earlier in December, the Department of Agriculture released a press release that promised “coming flexibilities aimed at transitioning people into independence” through “increased cooperation with states.”
Congress agrees: Congressional Republicans are reportedly poised to introduce legislation to tighten eligibility standards for these programs.
A Strong Incentive
Rather than condemn the inequalities and barriers that fortify poverty, Congress has elected instead to destroy the programs that keep poor families afloat.
Poor Americans have always been a neglected constituency. But the legislative assault that has been leveled against them in Trump's first year is arguably the most damaging ever. Republicans in Congress have, in their tax plan and subsequent plans to pay for it, modeled the “reverse Robin Hood”: rob from the poor to feed the rich. With a strong incentive to use their power to line their own pockets and those of their billionaire donors, the Republicans in control of Congress and the White House have left the most vulnerable among us holding the bag.