When Trump shreds the safety net, where do families fall? | Moran

on December 30, 2016

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. In the Great Recession, 9 million were saved from poverty by safety net programs Obama expanded to cope.

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Safety net programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits saved 9 million Americans from falling into poverty during the Great Recession.

Now that the economy has regained its balance, with plentiful jobs and rising wages, most of these families are safe for now, so this big win will have lasting impact.

But what will happen next time? Market economies rise and fall. That's a fact of life.

So what if the next recession hits while Donald Trump is president and Republicans control Congress?

Let's start with the facts. Each year under President Obama, House Republicans have drafted a budget, so their priorities are no secret.

Every year, the bulk of their spending cuts have landed on programs that serve low-income Americans, precisely the kind of programs that that rescued those 9 million people. In their most recent budget, 62 percent of the cuts fell on these programs.

President Obama has forced them to compromise each time, restoring much of that money. But will President Trump do the same? This will be an early test for him, and for the country.

These are called "domestic discretionary" programs in Washington's budget speak, because they are funded through annual acts of Congress. That makes them different, and more politically vulnerable, than entitlement programs like Social Security, which guarantee benefits to all who qualify.

The discretionary programs need a new name. Because really, they are essential lifelines for the victims of recession. They include not just food stamps and unemployment benefits, but college scholarships, job training, Head Start, rental vouchers and help for poor school districts.

In all, they amount to 16 percent of the federal budget, a much smaller share than entitlement programs or defense. And they are shrinking to historic lows as a share of the economy, now hovering at about 3 percent.

In the Trump era, these are the programs facing the gravest risk. He has promised enormous tax cuts, weighted heavily towards corporations and the wealthy. And he has promised to expand the military, rebuild the infrastructure, and protect the major entitlement programs, like Medicaid or Medicare.

These plans don't add up. They are about as realistic as forcing Mexico to build the wall.

But it's unnerving that the one budget category Trump has not promised to protect is discretionary spending - the same category that House Republicans have targeted every year.

The glib response to this is to blame the poor for their own problems, to pretend that what they really need is a hard kick in the rear to get them moving. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) warns that a safety net can be "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will."

Some inconvenient facts: Western Europe and Canada provide much more help to the poor, and yet they have much lower rates of poverty. How is it that America's poor are lulled into complacency when their hammock is so flimsy?

Most poor people in America don't stay poor for long. They are poor because they lost a job, they became ill, their family broke up, or their wages are too low.

Nearly half of Americans rely on safety net programs at some point in their lives, but only 16 percent do so for more than five years during their lives.

The safety net helps decent people get back on their feet after they've been knocked down. Ryan's hammock comment is an insult to the millions of blameless victims of a recession they didn't cause. If he wants to encourage work, he can start by dropping his resistance to a boost in the minimum wage.

In the meantime, fight to save the safety net. We'll need it in good shape during the next recession.

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