WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s administration is doing some wild and unprecedented stonewalling of congressional investigations, but don’t sleep on Trump’s methodical attempts to unravel the social safety net that are going on in the background.
This month, the administration signaled it would like to change how the government adjusts its official poverty threshold for inflation every year, which could result in millions fewer Americans qualifying for a wide range of benefits over time.
It’s only the most recent of many unilateral moves Trump has made on social policy, which all seek to fulfill an Inauguration Day promise to “get our people off of welfare and back to work.”
The anti-welfare agenda notably targets immigrants, such as by trying to bar rent subsidies to families of undocumented immigrants, but any domestic program is potentially threatened.
Last year, the administration said it would allow states to add “work requirements” to Medicaid, contrary to the program’s statutory purpose of providing health benefits to people with low incomes. It cut spending on Obamacare outreach and pushed to allow employers with ”moral″ objections to drop birth control from their health plans. And in December, the administration took a proposed food benefit cut ― one that House Republicans had drafted but the Senate rejected ― and stuck it into a regulation. No Congress needed!
It’s difficult to compare the unilateral actions of different presidencies, but it seems that the Trump administration’s social policy power grabs have been drastic by recent standards, said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“I think this administration’s actions on poverty and on birth control are beyond anything I have seen in the past,” said Haskins, who previously crafted welfare policy for Republicans as a staffer on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
Last week, in a formal ”request for comment″ published in the Federal Register, the Office of Management and Budget asked for input regarding how the government adjusts the Official Poverty Measure for inflation each year. Currently, a family of four is officially poor if the household earns less than $25,465 annually. Later this year, the government will update the number based on the rise in prices for things like food and shelter since last year.
The government has different ways of tracking inflation that it uses for a variety of purposes, such as adjusting eligibility thresholds for federal programs, repositioning tax brackets, and increasing Social Security benefits. The Trump administration hinted in its request for comment that it might prefer to adjust the poverty threshold with an inflation measure that rises more slowly than the others.
Eligibility for programs such as nutrition assistance and Medicaid is linked to the poverty thresholds, so holding down the official poverty line would slow the growth of enrollment in those programs, since fewer people would qualify as average incomes outpace the slower inflation measure.
Experts have long debated the appropriateness of the official poverty threshold, with many favoring an alternate poverty measure that the Census Bureau produces alongside the official one. The alternate measure takes into account more sources of income, expenses and geographical price differences than the official measure. (Experts say its benefit is as a descriptive tool, not as a replacement of the regular threshold for program eligibility.)
The Trump administration plopped down its request for input with total disregard for that debate, said Sharon Parrott, a senior fellow with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. People had been arguing over the validity of the measure itself, not over its annual inflation adjustments. But the Federal Register notice provides no details about the shortcomings of the poverty measure.
“Asking for public comment in apparent preparation for a policy change that could harm millions of struggling Americans over time, without providing the public with research and data on these basic questions, suggests this is not a serious effort to explore the important substantive issues that poverty measurement presents,” Parrott said in a statement.
Anyone can chime in when a federal agency requests public comment on a proposed rule, though agencies especially consider expert opinions from think tanks and the like. But that doesn’t mean the administration is going to listen to the responses it doesn’t like.
In the case of the Medicaid work requirements proposal, most respondents said the administration shouldn’t waive program rules to allow states to add work as a condition of eligibility for certain enrollees, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior fellow at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
“Even though the comments were 99 to 1 opposing the waivers, they approved them anyway,” Lower-Basch said.
It’s commendable for an agency to seek expert opinion on policy, said Jeffrey Lubbers, an expert on administrative law and regulation at American University’s Washington College of Law. But it won’t necessarily protect the agency from a lawsuit arguing that the change ”was not supportable by the facts and was therefore arbitrary and capricious,” Lubbers said.
Federal courts have thwarted the work requirements, saying the administration has clearly strayed from the purpose of the Medicaid program, which is to give poor people health care, not make them get jobs.
House Democrats have already laid the groundwork for a federal lawsuit over the Trump administration’s proposed regulatory changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which it borrowed from a House Republican bill that Congress didn’t pass. The regulation would kick 755,00 people off benefits next year by reducing some of the leeway states have to waive the program’s existing “work requirements” in areas with above-average unemployment rates.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who is leading the charge against the food benefit regulation, described the possible poverty threshold change as “yet another attempt by the administration to screw poor people.”
The Trump administration has shown it’s not going to be cowed by lawsuits and bad court results, however, as it can appeal to the Supreme Court, where the president feels he can get more favorable treatment.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged states to take away food benefits from custodial parents who refuse to cooperate with Child Support Enforcement, a state-federal program that can track down noncustodial parents and make them pay child support. Only six states currently require SNAP recipients to cooperate with child support. Making all of them do it is another thing House Republicans tried to pass last year but couldn’t.
In a joint statement, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and committee member Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said Congress did not intend to encourage states to withhold food benefits from people who aren’t cooperating with child support.
“Taking away food assistance to punish parents who are behind on their child support payments, or who haven’t filed a child support case, makes those parents less capable of providing financial support to their children,” Neal and Davis said.
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