Welfare Programs Appear Safe From Trump's Cuts, for Now

Even if Congress passes a spending bill without the president's proposed cuts to programs that help the poor, it's likely to consider more serious changes next year.
by | November 28, 2017
U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, center, joined by House subcommittee chairs, speaks at a press conference in September. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

As Congress faces a Dec. 8 deadline for passing a 2018 budget and avoiding a government shutdown, it's so far ignoring many of President Trump's budget requests as they relate to state-run programs for the poor.

The White House, for example, wants to terminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (which helps families pay monthly heat and air conditioning bills), but the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees have passed bills that leave its funding at the same level. The White House wants to cut $200 million from the Women, Infants and Children program (which aims to improve the nutrition of expecting and new mothers), but the Senate appropriations bill leaves its funding alone. The White House wants to cut about $310 million from its rental vouchers program, but the House and Senate appropriations bills call for the opposite -- about $1 billion more in the Senate version and $355 million more in the House version.

While those anti-poverty discretionary programs appear safe for now, funding for the biggest state-run anti-poverty programs -- cash welfare and food stamps -- is set by laws outside the appropriations process that's happening on Capitol Hill right now, and both Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress want to make major changes to them in the future.

In his budget proposal released in May, Trump also called for shrinking federal grants to states for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, better known as cash welfare) and tightening eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often called food stamps). The president also wants states to start matching federal SNAP dollars. Both of these programs are considered "mandatory" spending, rather than discretionary, and are funded through separate laws, including the farm bill.

If enacted, the Trump budget would be “significantly more radical than welfare reform” in 1996, says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) who also worked as a lead welfare policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Although Congress is so far disregarding the president's requests in the appropriations process, that could change -- this year or in future years.

In its broad 10-year budget resolution adopted in October, Congress pledged to cut $800 billion in non-defense discretionary spending by 2027, an 18 percent reduction. The plan doesn't detail which agencies or programs would be cut, but cuts that deep would inevitably affect anti-poverty programs. Plus, Trump's plans for TANF and SNAP mirror those of many conservative lawmakers and are likely to be seriously considered.

In its 10-year budget plan, the Trump administration goes further than Congress, hoping to cut $1.5 trillion from non-defense discretionary spending over the next decade, which would be a 41 percent reduction.

A think tank's new report illustrates for the first time how those proposed cuts and changes to discretionary and mandatory programs could impact the poor.

According to the Urban Institute, roughly 28 million households could see an average reduction of $1,230 a year in government assistance for child care, housing and food, pushing 3.5 million people into poverty.

Roughly one in five households would be affected by the proposals, according to the Urban Institute. People of color would be more likely to see some kind of reduction in benefits than their white peers. Only 15.5 percent of white households would feel the impact, compared to 34.9 percent of black households and 29.4 percent of Hispanic households. But because whites are still the largest racial or ethnic group in the U.S., they represent more than half of those who would be affected.

These proposals would also force states to make difficult decisions about whether to fill budget holes left by the federal government, likely at the expense of other priorities, such as education and health care services -- or whether to shrink or eliminate some services, wrote CLASP's executive director, Olivia Golden, in August.

Presidential and congressional budget plans, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. Historically, as evidenced by this year's appropriations bills, they aren't fully executed.

But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, noted in an October report that the proposals are still important because "they provide a roadmap for the kinds of cuts Republican leaders intend to make" after they move on from tax legislation, which is likely to result in less tax revenue and the need to make more spending cuts.

Brian Bowden, who lobbies Congress on health issues for the National Association for Counties (NACo), is concerned that when Congress takes up the farm bill next spring, it will consider some of the changes to the food stamps program.

"We do think [the proposals] are troubling signs of a weakening of the federal state-local partnership," he says. "It ups the ante for us to educate Congress and the administration on the impacts at the local level."

The House and Senate are still in the process of reconciling their spending bills for the 2018 fiscal year. With the Dec. 8 deadline looming, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have floated the possibility of a short-term stopgap to extend negotiations into the month.

Regardless of how funding for 2018 shapes up, the Urban Institute's report shows the human impact of deep, long-term budget cuts being contemplated by GOP leaders.

“When you talk about budget proposals in the hundreds of billions of dollars, people have trouble wrapping their minds around what that means," says Elaine Waxman, a co-author of the report. If the changes go through, she says, "it will affect a lot of folks."