Death by a Thousand Budget Cuts: The Need for a New Fight for Poor People’s Rights

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Tina Sacks*

You’re living in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?
—Donald J. Trump on the presidential campaign trail, August 2016

As of January 2017 it appears that, we, indeed, have everything to lose. Donald J. Trump’s rhetorical exhortation to urban—i.e., Black—voters during the 2016 presidential campaign seems all too real now that he has ascended to the US presidency. Much has been made of the looming threats Trump poses to the safety net, including the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s flawed but remarkable piece of legislation that has expanded health insurance to 22 million Americans, protected people with preexisting conditions, and allowed young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26. Although the dismantling of the ACA is a horrifying prospect, particularly for people who have benefited from the Medicaid expansion, Trump’s deadliest actions may be felt by our fellow Americans living in poverty.

The most vulnerable Americans depend on the United States’ rather meager social safety net, which Trump seems hell bent on dismantling. Although Trump has been described as non-ideological, his unholy alliance with Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan must certainly be characterized as deeply dogmatic. Ryan, a devout Roman Catholic, is almost without peer in his open hostility to the poor, and Trump has no better angels to call upon to resist him. Ryan has previously outlined plans to gut school lunches, food stamps, and Medicaid. Not even children, once held harmless like motherhood and apple pie, are off limits for the Ryan (and now Trump-Ryan) juggernaut. Given that we spend less than 10% percent of the federal budget on all safety net programs combined, it seems unlikely that insisting that millions of poor kids forego a turkey sandwich at lunchtime will really balance the budget. Instead, it seems Ryan is determined to shame, control, and penalize the poor, and he seems to have found a new ally in Trump, a man who extolls the virtues of being rich as evidence of superior moral character.

A Trump-Ryan alliance should be terrifying for anyone who cares about how little separates the American poor from abject misery. In fact, the official US poverty line is just under $12,000 ($11,880) for a single person or just over $24,000 a year for a family of four. In 2015, 43.1 million Americans were officially classified as poor, and yet little was made of their material deprivation during the election. If four people living on less than $25,000 is already an undeniable hardship, Ryan’s radical approach to government indicates he intends to further disembowel our measly safety net. Programs that were previously considered sacrosanct—such as Social Security, the holy grail of the welfare state developed during Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Medicare and Medicaid, developed during Johnson’s Great Society period—are now likely under threat. Ryan has repeatedly called for block granting or privatization schemes that will fundamentally alter these programs, leaving them vulnerable to the vagaries of the market instead of being a shelter from them. Under almost any presidential administration, Republican or Democrat, this would be unthinkable. Tinkering with Social Security and Medicare has long been the third rail of American politics, largely because these are programs with broad, i.e., white and elderly, constituencies. But, as many others have noted, nothing about this election or Trump has been normal.

Ironically, the national media has coalesced around the vulnerability of the white working class while omitting the very real and persistent condition of Black, Brown, and white people who are poor or extremely poor. In 2011, poverty scholars Shafer and Edin found that approximately 1.55 million US households were raising 3.55 million children on less than $2 per person per day. Almost 4 million children: that’s almost as many people as the city of Chicago and its suburbs who subsist on less than $2 a day. For these families, who are often working in very low-paying, precarious jobs, the high-end manufacturing work we heard so much about during the election must seem like a relic from a different century. In other words, for the minority poor who are often last hired and first fired, high-quality jobs have never seemed like an entitlement.

And yet, although everything about Trump brings a chill to my bones, Ryan may be the most wicked of them all. In contrast to chief strategist Steve Bannon, Ryan casts himself as the suited up, scrubbed clean Midwestern everyman, ready to decimate everything we’ve fought so hard for. Where Bannon uses his media platform to spew white supremacy, Ryan uses the indiscernible tool of block granting to codify institutional racism and economic exploitation. Under Trump-Ryan’s dystopian vision, Black, Brown and poor white people will suffer death by a thousand budget cuts.

But we cannot let that happen. The long fight for poor people’s rights, and anti-oppressive struggles in general, predates the Trump-Ryan impending apocalypse (see Davis 2014). Poor people’s movements, like other social movements, have long emerged in the face of repression and exploitation (see Piven and Cloward 1979). One such movement, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), developed in the 1960s, led primarily by Black women sick and tired of toiling in the low-wage labor market. These women developed a broad national coalition that fought for minimum income floors, adequate food, and minimum standards for furniture and clothing. The women of NWRO coalesced during a period of great social upheaval, and they successfully (for a time) reclaimed the idea that society had a social and fiscal responsibility to poor and non-white women raising our nation’s children.

I am not naïve enough to suggest that this historical moment mirrors the 1960s. Yet, we have much to learn from the history of anti-racist, anti-colonial, worker’s, feminist, and anti-capitalist movements. Now is the time to look to collective action movements for substantive lessons in vigilance and solidarity. As austerity and authoritarianism are reemerging across the globe, it is clear that the United States is vulnerable to these modes of governance. As Trump and Ryan lead this wave stateside, we are called upon to resist the metaphorical tyranny of allowing children to go to school hungry. Collective action and social movements can, and always have, push back against the plunder of social institutions and social programs. Fighting for the most vulnerable is indeed a fight for our way of life, because democracy cannot function without a safe harbor from the vicissitudes of capitalism. If we are to reclaim our republic, we must pay attention to our neighbors with too little food, medicine, or shelter.

The Trump-Ryan alliance is ready to ransack what remains of our system of social security. As people of conscience, we must be one step ahead of them.

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References and Further Readings
Davis, A. 2014. Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Piven, F.F. and R.A. Cloward. 1979. Poor People’s Movements. New York: Vintage Books.

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*Tina Sacks is Assistant Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. Her fields of special interest include racial disparities in health; social determinants of health; race, class and gender; and poverty and inequality.

Header image (left): Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park, Washington, DC (1968) (edited). From Wikicommons.

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One thought on “Death by a Thousand Budget Cuts: The Need for a New Fight for Poor People’s Rights

  1. Thank you Dr Sacks for bringing awareness to this most worthwhile subject. Keeping a watchful eye on this Administration is imperative if we as caring American People intend to nip these possible harmful budget cuts in the bud. We cannot allow the most vulnerable citizens of our country (the elderly, the poor, the sick and hungry children) to suffer this heinous action. These social welfare programs must remain alive. Rather than have cuts, we must work to increase welfare programs. It’s very disappointing to know that the incoming Administration would run roughshod over the needy in America just to push through its own selfish, greedy agenda. I say charity must begin at home.

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