Over the past couple of months I’ve been chronicling how President Trump and Republicans in Congress have taken aim at the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. How they passed a tax plan that benefitted the wealthy at the expense of those in need. How they have since aimed their sights on programs which benefit the poor and the sick. How they are seeking to stigmatize and alienate those who use and depend on social services.
My aim in doing this is not to simply point at a political party I do not support and say “hey, that’s bad.” A lot of people do that. My aim has been to show how, in these policies, Republicans have largely abandoned all pretense of conservatism as it’s normally understood and have, instead, adopted a political agenda of unabashed class warfare, in which the poor and needy are cast as enemies. It’s a campaign that cuts across traditional partisan lines and will likely harm just as many people who have traditionally supported Republicans as have supported Democrats. As such, I have argued, it is, I believe, either evidence of or a harbinger for of a political realignment in which the poor, regardless of their political orientation, are pitted against the wealthy, regardless of theirs.
The latest example of this can be found in President Trump’s budget proposal, released yesterday. It would slash Medicaid. It would defund regional authorities and commissions whose work disproportionately impacts low-income people and minorities. It would end job-training and educational-development programs, slash or end subsidized student loans and public-service forgiveness for student loans. It would end low-income-housing energy-assistance programs. It would impose time-limited benefits and work requirements for those seeking disability assistance.
Perhaps the most notable of all of its proposals, however, involve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, SNAP, which was once known as the food stamp program.
SNAP involves what is, basically, a debit card, preloaded with a relatively small amount of money to help poor families buy food. About 44 million Americans, mostly women and children, get their nutrition needs supplemented, in part, by SNAP. While the program has long been a boogeyman for conservatives, who pass along unsubstantiated claims of SNAP recipients using their benefits to buy steaks and things, it’s a rigorously policed program, which has seen fraud rates dramatically decline over time, to all-time historical lows today.
Trump’s proposed budget would radically transform SNAP. Rather than provide money in an debit card, it would slash those benefits and attempt to make up the difference with a box of canned goods, referred to as “America’s Harvest Box.” The Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney described it as a “Blue Apron-type program,” but it’s more akin to war rations or a trip to a soup kitchen. The boxes would include shelf-stable milk instead of fresh dairy products and would not contain any fresh fruits or vegetables whatsoever, rendering the word “Harvest” in the title rather dubious. The boxes would be paid for, assembled and distributed by the federal government.
It’s strange that such a program is being proposed by so-called conservatives, because there is absolutely nothing conservative about the scheme:
- It transforms what is, in essence, a voucher/grant program into a highly-administered governmental program. In almost every other instance, Republicans favor vouchers and grants to give recipients of federal dollars choices. Here, however, it would do the opposite;
- It’s highly unlikely to bring with it any cost savings, given the tremendous overhead costs which will be incurred by the assembly and distribution of such boxes. Ask Blue Apron how easy it is so box up and ship up meals to people;
- It also would harm private businesses — grocery stores and convenience stores — by taking away billions in food sales, and last I checked, conservatives tend not to be in the business of harming business;
- It’s likewise a pretty major exercise in Big Brother government, with USDA officials not just telling people what they should eat but making sure they only eat what they are told. Remember when Michelle Obama wanted to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and it was seen as creeping authoritarianism by people on the right? For some reason they haven’t peeped about this yet.
So, if this “Harvest Box” idea neither saves money nor advances traditional conservative principles, what does it do?
Mostly it’s aggressively hostile to SNAP recipients. It presumes they cannot and should not make their own food choices. It deprives them of the ability to purchase fresh food, food to which they are accustomed to cooking and eating and likely limits the ability of SNAP recipients with specialized diets — people with food allergies or celiac disease, for example — to meet their nutritional needs. It thus directly harms them while having the added benefit of stigmatizing them. It’s essentially a punitive exercise aimed at making the everyday existence of SNAP recipients worse.
While such a thing makes zero sense in the context of traditional governing, it makes perfect sense in the context of the political realignment about which I’ve hypothesized.
Such policies lend themselves perfectly to a political regime that, as a matter of conscious policy, favors the wealthy and disfavors the poor and vulnerable. It feeds directly into class resentment which can be seen in the erroneous complaints of those who believe in the old “welfare queen” stereotype and pass along apocryphal stories of food stamp recipients buying T-bone steaks and cigarettes at the grocery store. Such class resentment, in turn, gives greater and greater power to those who would demonize and marginalize the poor.
Proposals such as these are not tone deaf. They are not aberrant. Attacking and scapegoating the poor is a mode of conduct that is reasonably and rationally calculated to rally the support of the wealthy and privileged who, in recent political history, have had far, far greater say in who gets elected in this country than anyone else. It is class warfare, consciously undertaken by the wealthy and the powerful for political gain.
It will not be stopped until leaders those with influence in public opinion call it out for what it is and work hard to oppose it. When they do, and if and when people are mobilized, the political realignment will be complete. Instead of a fight between conservatives and liberals as we currently know it, it will be a fight between the wealthy and currently powerful on one side and ordinary Americans on the other.
Which side will you be on? For my part, I’ll take the side with the greater numbers. There can’t be more of them than us. There can’t be more.