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Explain This

The Unbearable Cruelty of the Trump Budget

Social programs are among the biggest casualties in a budget that proposes to skim billions from programs that serve the nation’s most vulnerable.

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In the era of Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress, there are boundless opportunities to talk about the cruelty of Republican economic policy. Trump’s newly released 2019 budget proposal is yet another salvo in the ongoing GOP war against anyone who isn’t rich and white.

In some ways, the budget, which is stuffed full of money for things like the military and the president’s proposed border wall while at the same time demanding brutal cuts to nearly everything else, is entirely predictable. It follows the long-held Republican belief that the social safety net should be shredded. But under Trump, the White House is going above and beyond in utterly shattering the norms of how you pay for a functional democracy.

First off, you can’t talk about the budget without talking about the newly passed tax bill. That tax bill is going to cause the government’s cash reserves to run out much sooner. This means that the GOP has a perfect setup to call for big cuts to things like social services, which is the thing Paul Ryan made absolutely clear he wanted to happen.

Remember during the campaign when Trump promised no cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security? And his legislative affairs director doubled down on this as recently as December 2017? Like so much of what the man says, that was just a bald-faced lie.

Of course, tracking those cuts isn’t as easy as locating a press release or a portion of the budget document that explains the cuts. They’re buried under doublespeak words like “improve” and “enhance” and “streamline” but the cuts are there.

Let’s start with Social Security. Saying you won’t cut Social Security is basically required to get the votes of older Americans, and Trump promised them the moon by saying he’d leave Social Security alone. It worked, with voters over 65 breaking decisively for Trump. But the proposed 2019 budget definitely doesn’t leave Social Security unscathed. There’s some sleight-of-hand at work here. The budget leaves what we typically think of as “Social Security”—benefits for retired people—alone but proposes to cut—or, in the euphemistic language of this budget—”reform” the disability portion of Social Security (SSDI) by $72 billion across the next 10 years.

Disability payments are both the unsung hero and the unfairly maligned demon of the Social Security program. Theoretically, if you can’t work because of a disability that lasts more than a year or will lead to your death, you’re eligible for Social Security disability payments. (In reality, as the Social Security Administration itself explains, the process of getting those benefits can be labyrinthine, frustrating, and years-long.) And even if you do qualify, benefits top out around $1,200/month—not nearly enough to live on. For nearly 70 percent of Americans who don’t have private disability insurance through their employer, Social Security disability payments are their only hope in the event they become unable to work. That’s the program that’s going to see the cuts. It allows plausible deniability—see, he didn’t cut the REAL Social Security!—and it allows the GOP to kick people with disabilities in the teeth. It’s a win for them, a lose for everyone else that lives on the knife-edge.

The budget also proposes to “save” (slash) $266 billion from Medicare, the health insurance program for people over 65, by “eliminat[ing] wasteful spending.” It’s only by the most tendentious reading that you can tell yourself it isn’t a cut. The vagueness of what is determined to be “wasteful” could cover everything from hospice care to prescription drugs to hospital stays.

The White House budget also gives elderly people on Medicare the “option” to make tax-deductible contributions to Health and Medical Savings Accounts. Of course, you have to have some extra money to make a contribution to an HSA or an MSA, and even if you do, stashing your own money away in a savings account is not actually a pathway out of the looming possibility of crushing medical bills.

Medicaid, which covers roughly 20 percent of all Americans, provides health insurance to people who earn less than 138 percent—around $16,000/year—of the federal poverty line. Those aren’t people who are just sitting around not working: nearly 8 in 10 Medicaid adult recipients are in a working family and a majority of them work themselves. They simply work at jobs that don’t provide them healthcare or pay them too little to buy healthcare. Of course, the Affordable Care Act helped out with that, but this new budget is predicated on a repeal of the ACA. Over the next decade, Trump wants to slash $763 billion in Medicaid subsidies.

The Trump budget also proposes block grants, which all but guarantees that funding will fall behind the pace of marketplace increases in health care. Oh, and there’s also a proposed cap on per capita federal funding, so the federal government will only pay a fixed amount of money, regardless of what your medical care actually cost, and that proposed cap is already below market rates too.

Food stamp programs (now referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) would also see a giant hit if Trump’s budget were to be enacted. That line item alone would see a $213 billion cut, which is about a 30 percent hit. Last week, the administration also proposed, in an offhand sort of way, that instead of SNAP funds that low-income people can use to buy the food of their choice, they’d now get a box of non-perishable food items like cereal, peanut butter, and beans.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, a man who is awful for a whole host of other reasons, said this box would be akin to receiving Blue Apron. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Blue Apron is a food service for upper-middle-class and rich people and send you perfectly-portioned fresh food so you can make things like fettuccine with whipped ricotta and roasted cauliflower with farro salad. You aren’t going to be able to make that out of a box of dried red beans, some white rice, and some powdered milk. Indeed, you’re not going to be able to make anything with fresh ingredients at all. It’s a vicious—and unhealthy—way to punish the poor for being poor and to ensure they receive poor nutrition. Additionally, just imagine the infrastructure that would have to be constructed to distribute millions of boxes of food each month. It would have to be Amazon-like in its scope and efficiency, but there’s certainly no money in the budget for that.

So there you have it. From programs that weren’t supposed to be cut, there are actually over $1 trillion in proposed cuts. They’re cuts that affect the most vulnerable among us: low-income people, people with disabilities, and the elderly. They send a message that, under the Trump administration, these people are not valuable, they are not worth helping, and they are a drain on society. That shouldn’t really be surprising, because it’s clear that is indeed what Trump and the GOP believe, but it’s heartbreaking to see it all laid out in black and white.

The adoption of this budget would hurt people. The adoption of this budget would kill people, including people in red states that broke for Trump and have some of the highest use of just the sorts of programs this budget cuts. This isn’t an effective, efficient, or accountable budget, no matter the title. It isn’t the foundation “for a new era of American Greatness”, as the preamble says. It’s a series of broken promises and the death knell for America’s safety net.

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