It was a classic bait and switch. On Thursday, in the hours before the Oval Office was set to host President Donald Trump’s ceremonial signing of a farm bill — one which had been lauded by anti-hunger advocates for sparing the food stamps program of deep funding cuts — the Trump administration quietly announced its plan to dump hundreds of thousands of people off of the food assistance program.
It was a quick end to a much ballyhooed example of bipartisan compromise. A few months ago, the kind of multi-billion-dollar slashing of food aid that President Donald Trump had called for in his previous budgets seemed almost inevitable. Republicans had control of every choke point of the federal government, and they’ve long wanted to carve up the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It was indeed a victory to have defeated that dire impulse in the law that simultaneously sets the table for both farmers and the destitute.
Or it could have been such a victory. But earlier Thursday morning, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made good on the promise he’d issued after Republican leaders compromised to get the farm bill over the line before control of the House reverted to Democratic hands. The hard-hearted food stamps policies will happen, after a fashion, without anyone elected by the people having to leave their fingerprints at the scene of the crime.
Rather, Perdue’s USDA is using its regulatory authority to dramatically shrink the parameters of government generosity to those on the brink of hunger. The wonky new rules that Perdue has devised will radically alter how public servants administer food aid.
The end result is dire: Nearly 800,000 Americans will likely lose access to the meager benefits SNAP provides after these changes take effect. Many more who shouldn’t even be cut off by the letter of the new rules nonetheless will be through error, as similar bureaucratic over-tinkering has shown recently in Arkansas’s Medicaid overhaul.
Perdue’s rulemaking targets something called “ABAWDs waivers,” which states use on those occasions when adverse economic conditions reach the point at which it becomes unreasonable to expect the unemployed to reliably find steady paying work.
The acronym refers to “able-bodied adults without dependents.” Under current policy and law, food assistance administrators may temporarily suspend the SNAP program’s 20-hours-a-week work requirement when unemployment is substantially above the national average in their area. These waivers ensure that massive recessions and slow-grinding recoveries boosted more by low-wage retail jobs than actual career opportunities do not leave the jobless or the underemployed unable to put enough food on their families’ tables.
At the moment, states can obtain these waivers anywhere the local unemployment rates are 20 percent higher than average, or where there are significantly fewer jobs available than there are people who need work. That will stop, or at least dramatically shrink, once the Trump-Perdue rules become final sometime next year. The new rules stipulate that no waiver can be granted in a place where unemployment rates are lower than 7 percent, even if such a place can demonstrate that there are too few jobs available for unemployed residents to find meaningful work.
Less than 10 percent of all food stamps recipients even qualify as ABAWDs. Close to half of those who do are currently working or volunteering enough hours to meet the 20-hour work rules that SNAP has mandated since it was created in the 1990s. Perdue’s staff calculate that 2.8 million people who meet the description currently aren’t working. More than a quarter of those live in areas that will be cut off from the small mercy of ABAWDs waivers under Perdue’s new rules.
ThinkProgress has covered the running wonk-battle over ABAWDs waivers closely for years. The policy became a villain in conservative eyes during the Obama years, when the slow recovery left working folks behind even as it quickly made the investor class whole again. State leaders with ambitions for higher office — then-Govs. Mike Pence (R-IN), John Kasich (R-OH), Scott Walker (R-WI), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Paul LePage (R-ME) in particular — started prematurely winding down their states’ ABAWDs waivers. They used the same language Perdue used to frame his new policy: Their aim, they said, was simply to nudge people back into productive working life, to end their lazy and habitual tapping of the public dole.
But while reimposing these work requirements in this fashion helped kick tens of thousands of people in those Republican-ruled states off of food stamps, there’s no evidence that it helped anyone obtain a job. Simply put, this is not how the relationship between public assistance and private commerce actually works, as policy experts and economists and poor people and food bank managers and job training professionals have all been saying for years.
Now, this cloudcuckooland conception of the work-to-food relationship will be enshrined in national policy.
How did we get here? It’s worth remembering just how wealthy the country that’s now attempting to further the immiseration of its poorest citizens has become. The poorest state in the republic — Mississippi, with its per-capita GDP of $37,376 — has a larger economy than the nations of Jordan, Uruguay, and Mozambique combined, per IMF and BEA statistics.
So how does a nation so wealthy that its poorest state generates more economic activity than whole countries get to a place where civic leaders bother to spend their time coming up with ways to drop 800,000 people off of food assistance? It’s comforting to imagine that the answer is “By electing Donald Trump,” because then this unfortunate turn of events could be neatly explained away as a fluke event that suddenly knocked the nation from its otherwise mostly healthy trajectory of civic history.
It isn’t that simple, of course. And the same can be said of the notion that Republicans have always wanted to starve poor people, and have just become more shrewdly technocratic about it since the bipartisan grotesqueries of the Clinton era.
In truth, this latest shifting of regulatory burdens onto the backs of struggling low-income citizens has one father in particular. He’s quitting his job as we speak, walking away a winner even if his grandest, cruelest dreams are — for now — still unfulfilled.
“We don’t want to turn that safety net into a hammock,” said Paul Ryan in 2011. He would go on to repeat this refrain in 2012, while running for Vice President alongside a private-equity plutocrat whose signature cock-up involved being caught saying out loud what everyone always suspected he thought about his fellow man.
At the time Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that “47 percent” of all American humans are useless leeches got all the notoriety, all the memes, all the dark canonization in the historical lexicon of U.S. rhetoric. But Romney’s art was derivative of the ideas that Ryan spent a career inside Beltway greenrooms serving up to affirming applause from his center- and center-right audience. (Ironically, Ryan first debuted the hammock line in a speech warning that pro-spending Democrats, not pro-cuts Republicans, would cause “painful austerity” and induce “social chaos” where the sight of “kid[s] lobbing the Molotov cocktail at the riot police” would become commonplace — three things that could fit comfortably into a summary of the Charlottesville-shaded Trump era.)
Whenever possible, Ryan would give his hammock speech while standing beside a flip-board of charts designed to create the artifice of inarguable truth into his insistent clamoring for the destruction of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and just about every other basic guardrail that got strapped onto the U.S. economy after the last Gilded Age.
By the time we learned his argument’s fulcrum — a supposed “tipping point” of national debt — was based on an Excel error, it was too late. Ryan’s con job had worked on a damnably large share of those who were ostensibly tasked with monitoring what powerful people say and do, and then relaying what they’ve said and done to the hundreds of millions of people too busy working to watch C-SPAN Two on a Wednesday afternoon. Well-meaning fellow-feelers, who perhaps didn’t share Ryan’s social views but found his debt-panicked mania compelling, laundered his man-of-ideas hustle for mass media consumption. And if they occasionally took issue with those ideas at the margins, they nevertheless enabled the creation of “Paul Ryan, Wonk King” — the details-oriented ubermensch who, when pressed, seemed pathologically averse to providing many details.
Paul Ryan: "You're asking me details abt legislation. I'm not going to get into nitty gritty details of leg that hasn't been drafted."
— Laura Barrón-López (@lbarronlopez) November 13, 2016
Some of those pundits have finally started to reckon with their roles in normalizing a guy who looked at the worst economic crash since the Great Depression and thought, “Now seems like a good time to smash up all the good stuff we started doing for poor people because of the Great Depression.” Some of them probably never will.
All of that is worth remembering as Ryan’s old and ugly smears of food stamps recipients as hammock-dwelling sloths get formally written into federal policy by guys named Donald and Sonny. Yes, the Trump era will be remembered mainly for the president’s naked contempt of all social and governing norms, and his administration’s escalation of unvarnished cruelty toward the neediest and least fortunate among us — which has only served as an inspiration to others.
But Donald Trump did not invent this brand of politics. Future recollections of Trump’s time in office would be well served to keep a place for those who paved the path for his ascension, and who originally generated the ideas he’s now executing on with such froth and fervor. If the Sonny Perdues and Donald Trumps of today are able to see farther than their right-wing forebears, it is because they stand on the shoulders of giants like Paul Ryan.