America hasn’t always, or even usually, been governed by the best and the brightest; over the years, presidents have employed plenty of knaves and fools. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like the collection of petty grifters and miscreants surrounding Donald Trump. Price, Pruitt, Zinke, Carson and now Ronny Jackson: At this point, our default assumption should be that there’s something seriously wrong with anyone this president wants on his team.
Still, we need to keep our eye on the ball. The perks many Trump officials demand — the gratuitous first-class travel, the double supersecret soundproof phone booths, and so on — are outrageous, and they tell you a lot about the kind of people they are. But what really matters are their policy decisions. Ben Carson’s insistence on spending taxpayer funds on a $31,000 dining set is ridiculous.
And this viciousness is part of a broader pattern. Last year, Trump and his allies in Congress devoted most of their efforts to coddling the rich; this was obviously true of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but even the assault on Obamacare was largely about securing hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the wealthy. This year, however, the GOP’s main priority seems to be making war on the poor.
That war is being fought on multiple fronts. The move to slash housing subsidies follows moves to sharply increase work requirements for those seeking food stamps.
Even the administration’s de facto financial deregulation — its systematic gutting of consumer financial protection — should be seen largely as an attack on the least well off, since poor families and less educated workers are the most likely victims of exploitative bankers.
The interesting question is not whether Trump and friends are trying to make the lives of the poor nastier, more brutal and shorter. They are. The question, instead, is why.
Is it about saving money? Conservatives do complain about the cost of safety net programs, but it’s hard to take those complaints seriously coming from people who just voted to explode the budget deficit with huge tax cuts. Moreover, there’s good evidence that some of the programs under attack actually do what tax cuts don’t: eventually pay back a significant part of their upfront costs by promoting better economic performance.
For example, the creation of the food stamp program didn’t just make the lives of recipients a bit easier. It also had major positive impacts on the long-term health of children from poor families, which made them more productive as adults — more likely to pay taxes, less likely to need further public assistance.
It’s true that some calculations indicate that means-tested programs — programs available only to those with sufficiently low incomes — can create disincentives for working and earning. But the evidence suggests that while safety net programs have some adverse effect on incentives, it’s a much smaller effect than many policymakers believe.
Trump and his friends aren’t punishing the poor reluctantly, out of the belief that they must be cruel to be kind. They just want to be cruel.
Seriously, a lot of people both in this administration and in Congress simply feel no empathy for the poor. Some of that lack of empathy surely reflects racial animus. But while the war on the poor will disproportionately hurt minority groups, it will also hurt a lot of low-income whites — in fact, it will surely end up hurting a lot of people who voted for Trump.
Writes for The New York Times.