Will America’s shrinking safety net still be there to catch falling families?

Published on
July 30, 2019

What is the underlying vision or political philosophy that ties together the Trump administration’s ongoing moves to scale back the programs and services that make up America’s safety net for low-income people?

Georgetown law professor David Super argued in a scathing New York Times op-ed last week that “cruelty” is the only common thread linking Trump’s “grab-bag of mutually inconsistent ideas.” 

Elisa Minoff, senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C. agrees, but adds that Trump’s use of administrative actions — rather than legislation — has a more specific focus. “I think the common thread connecting these various actions that are happening largely out of the public eye is … limiting supports for certain people — and for immigrants and families of color, in particular,” Minoff told reporters gathered for the 2019 National Fellowship this week.

A prime example of this, according to Minoff, is the administration's proposed changes to the public charge rule, which would make it harder for immigrants to receive green cards if they use or are likely to use government benefits, such as food stamps or housing vouchers. “What it would do is essentially make it harder for low-income families to get green cards,” she said.

Although the proposed rule change has not yet been finalized, there’s evidence it has already had a chilling effect. A study issued by the Urban Institute in May found that more than 20 percent of adults in low-income immigrant families “did not participate in a noncash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking a future green card.”

Another proposed rule change put out by the Department of Housing and Urban Development this spring would cut off families from receiving federal housing assistance if they include an undocumented member. The rule change could lead to 55,000 children with legal status losing their housing, according to the department’s own analysis.

But Trump’s safety-net squeeze isn’t limited to immigrant families, in Minoff’s view. The administration has encouraged states to apply for waivers that would allow them to add work requirements to their Medicaid programs; 16 states have applied for such waivers so far. Such requirements have a long history of disproportionately hitting low-income black families, she says.

“I argue that work requirements should really be thought of as a prime example of institutionalized racism in our system of social supports,” Minoff said, referring to persistent racist tropes of African Americans as lazy and seeking to avoid work. “Historically, racist stereotypes have been used to build support for work requirements.”

In Arkansas, 17,000 adults lost their Medicaid coverage in the first six months after the state rolled out work requirements. Evidence that the requirements led to an employment boom has been scant.

“We know from decades of research that taking assistance away from families for failing to meet work requirements doesn’t meaningfully increase work, not in the long run at least,” Minoff said. Such requirements are as likely to increase child poverty as decrease it, according to landmark 2019 report from the National Academy of Sciences.

That all raises a larger question: “I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking, ‘Why do policy makers still see work requirements as a valid policy lever?’” Minoff said.

If the thrust of the federal government under Trump has been to shrink the safety net, California has done the opposite.

In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making California a “sanctuary state,” limiting cooperation between local officials and federal immigration agents. 

The state expanded Medicaid to low-income undocumented children in 2016, and Gov. Gavin Newsom went a step further this year, expanding the program to low-income undocuemnted  adults through age 25. And as the Trump administration has sought to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, first through Congressional repeal and then administrative moves, California has recreated a state version of the insurance mandate while expanding subsidies for low- and middle-income residents, with the goal of making marketplace coverage more affordable. 

The state is also making a number of early childhood investments, including expanding a low-income tax credit for families with young children to $1,000 a year. Notably, it’s the kind of policy states can still pursue under Trump, since it requires no federal approval or dollars.

“There is a significant body of research showing that a boost in income for low-income kids, especially when they’re very young, is associated with much improved health outcomes and long-term economic outcomes,” said Sara Kimberlin, senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center. 

But while there are policy moves states such as California or New York can make to thwart the Trump administration’s moves to shrink safety net programs, Kimberlin points out there is a limit to what states can do, particularly with massive public programs such as Medicaid and food assistance. 

“The spending level that comes through the federal government for that is not an amount that can be backfilled by a state, even a state with a healthy budget like California,” Kimberlin said. “It would be devastating if those went away.”