At his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Trump sent out a clarion call that portends where he will set his legislative sights next. “We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity,” Trump insisted.
Translation: Expect cuts in the social safety net.
As the path of the Republican tax plan toward passage grew clearer, so did the threat to the social safety net. With major, permanent tax cuts for corporations, and by extension the wealthiest Americans, and (temporary) tax cuts to individuals that also disproportionately benefit the wealthy, experts argue this bill will contribute as much as $1.5 trillion to the deficit. House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues have made clear that they intend to use the social safety net to finance the tax cuts. Said Republican Representative Rod Blum, “For us to achieve three percent GDP growth over the next 10 years from tax reform, we have to have welfare reform.”
Now that the bill has passed and been signed into law, the threat to the social safety net is existential. While making the rounds on the various morning talk shows boasting of the Republicans’ “accomplishment,” Speaker Ryan argued (and Trump later echoed), “People want able-bodied people who are on welfare to go to work, they want us to get people out of poverty, into the workforce.”
It’s hard to understand the logic behind undermining the funding streams for programs that keep people out of poverty in order to “get people out of poverty,” but clearly the Speaker is not the only one who subscribes to that line of thinking. Reports suggest that the White House is finalizing an executive order demanding a review of the federal programs that comprise the social safety net. One can only presume that the conclusions of this review will justify major changes to the programs conservatives have derided for years as wasteful and ineffective. On the potential chopping block are the traditional targets: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often called food stamps), housing assistance programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, a cash assistance program), and health care. Even now the White House is allowing states to apply new work requirements to certain Medicaid enrollees, potentially undermining their access to care.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are reportedly quietly writing legislation that could tighten eligibility standards for social safety net programs, in ways that could collectively remove millions from the rosters.
SNAP seems to be particularly vulnerable. At the beginning of December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, circulated a memo that promised “coming flexibilities aimed at transitioning people into independence." Flexibility is a well-known code word for policies that empower states to attach more stringent work requirements and drug tests with an eye toward, again, excising current enrollees. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue alluded to these changes himself at the end of January.
In October, Congress passed a joint budget resolution that loosely codified proposed cuts to the social safety net over the next 10 years. An analysis from the Urban Institute offers some insight as to what “welfare reform” might specifically entail and what is at stake should it come to fruition. In the event that flexibilities translate into restricting benefit access, changes to SNAP would affect 23.4 million families who would lose about $600 per year per family, or stated another way, 430 meals annually. Of those families, almost 20 million would see a reduction in their SNAP benefits. The rest would totally lose their access to SNAP. Anticipated reductions to the federal contribution to TANF was estimated to impact 260,000 families throughout the country in the form of $2,580 less each year in distributed TANF assistance.
Holding the Line
Progressives knew exactly whom to thank for the defeat of accused child molester and Republican candidate Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election—black voters, who turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote for Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
In the aftermath of Jones’ upset, social media was flooded with posts thanking black Alabamians, particularly black women, for “saving America” from its worst impulses.
At least one member of the national Democratic Party apparatus agreed: Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez asserted, “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because black women led us to victory. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
If progressive Americans, voters, activists, and politicians are serious about giving more than verbal acknowledgement to black voters for protecting the country from extremism (and the subsequent embarrassment of having to seat an alleged child molester in the United States Senate), then they must proactively take actions to protect black voters, especially poor ones. Such actions should begin with ensuring that the social safety net programs that are most impactful for disenfranchised black voters be maintained (or expanded) and not diminished, as it appears congressional Republicans are poised to do.
To be sure, congressional Democrats have so far held the line in opposing Republicans’ efforts to weaken the social safety net and generally debilitate poor Americans. Not a single Democrat voted for House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, which attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Not a single Democrat voted for any version of the Senate Republicans’ ACA repeal legislation.
Congressional Democrats must continue to hold the line. They may be the minority party in both houses of Congress, but they have a number of powerful legislative and administrative tools at their disposal, including the filibuster and the budget writing process. For proof of their effectiveness, look no further than the DACA debate: The overwhelming majority of Democrats banded together to prevent congressional Republicans (and President Trump) from sabotaging Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals' Dreamers during the government shutdown dispute. In doing so, the Democrats in the Senate were able to bring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the table to discuss a bipartisan DACA solution.
These tools must be employed to stop congressional Republicans from undermining the social safety net because a weakened social safety net would spell disaster for black Americans across the country.
Black Americans Need the Social Safety Net
Although black Americans are only 13 percent of the total population, they comprise 22 percent of the country’s poor. High rates of unemployment and low wages, the result of generations of commingling of economic oppression and institutionalized racism, have depreciated black incomes and wealth to the extent that in 2011, black Americans took home only 59 cents for every dollar white households did. Black Americans have the lowest household income among all racial groups, which has translated into few opportunities to build wealth. Black Americans had a median liquid wealth of $200 as compared to $23,000 for whites in 2011.
Poverty has an unusually tight grip on the black community: Most black Americans who are born poor remain poor into adulthood. Middle-class black families are not immune from this grip either. Black Americans are uniquely downwardly mobile, especially compared to whites, with 70 percent of middle-income black Americans joining the ranks of lower-income Americans by adulthood.
Even the nature of black poverty is different. Unlike poor whites, poor blacks tend to live in areas with concentrated poverty, surrounded by other poor families. Concentrated poverty for black Americans, wrought in large part by discrimination in the labor market, geographically concentrated public housing complexes and gentrification, means that they are often confronted with poorly performing schools, insufficient access to health care providers and food deserts.
In this context, it’s not surprising that black Americans experience high levels of food insecurity: More than one in five black households were food insecure in 2015, compared to one in eight of all American households. SNAP has been a critical factor in helping black families stave off food insecurity and poverty, helping to feed 13 million black families in a given month in 2015. More than 2 million black families, including 1.1 million children, used SNAP to stay on the other side of financial disaster in 2014. An additional 1.1 million black families were insulated from “deep poverty” that year as well, thanks to SNAP.
Black Americans comprised 21 percent of Medicaid enrollees in 2013 and are highly concentrated in five of the 11 states identified by the Kaiser Family Foundation as being the most vulnerable states to ensuing challenges from cuts to Medicaid. Those five states, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, have the highest black populations in the country. Weakening Medicaid could mean a return to the days when more than 20 percent of black adults were uninsured and 30 percent reported not having a consistent source of health care.
Even now, black Americans, with the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and Medicare fully intact, are uninsured at higher rates than their white counterparts and are more likely to suffer dire health outcomes as a result: Maternal mortality rates for black women in some parts of the country rival those of women in sub-Saharan African.
Perhaps nowhere is the existence of black poverty and the need for the social safety net more apparent than in Alabama, where the poverty rate is 18.5 percent. Concentrated poverty strongly correlates to black residence in the stretch of the state referred to as the “Black Belt," where black families are between three and four times as likely to live in poverty as white families.
Alabama recently attained international attention in the wake of a special report from the United Nations, which gave the state the dubious distinction of being one of the most impoverished regions in the developed world. Lowndes County, a county in the Black Belt where 35 percent of black residents live in poverty as compared to only 4.1 percent of white residents, was singled out as an example of Alabama poverty at its most extreme.
Dismantling the social safety net could mean the duplication of the conditions that plague Alabama’s Black Belt throughout the country. If anything, congressional reform efforts to the social safety net should focus on making it more equitable, not less, with the Democratic Party leading the charge.
As things currently stand, social safety net programs, as critical as they are to the financial stability of black families, can disadvantage black families in their own right. TANF, of which blacks represent 29.7 percent of total enrollees, has been shown to have its benefits distributed by the states in a discriminatory fashion, according to the Urban Institute. States with high numbers of black residents distribute fewer TANF dollars to families and for shorter amounts of time compared to states with whiter populations. Oregon, a state in which black Americans make up a mere 1.8 percent of the population, allows an eligible single-parent-led family of three $506 in TANF assistance per month. In Mississippi, where the population is 38 percent black, a similarly situated family is only eligible to receive $170 each month.
Benefit generosity is based not only on the dollar amount offered, but on the number of impoverished families serviced. To this point, the Urban Institute found that states with high black representation were more limited in terms of how their social safety net services were distributed. Louisiana and Arkansas, where black Americans make up significant portions of the population, have some of the lowest TANF-to-poverty ratios in the nation, with TANF benefits being offered to four for every 100 in poverty and seven for every 100 in poverty, respectively. Over half of all black Americans live in the 25 states with the lowest TANF-to-poverty ratios, meaning that TANF’s benefits disproportionately accrue to whites.
Not only is the social safety net not as generous as it could or should be to recipients, it has gaping holes that have left or pushed many eligible Americans out into the cold.
Data from 2014 shows that TANF covered 850,000 adults and their 2.5 million children, a fraction of those covered at its inception in 1996. Between 1996 and 2013, while poverty and deep poverty increased, TANF covered 60 percent fewer recipients. Stated differently, before the transition from the more generous Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF, which marked the "end of welfare as we know it,” seven in 10 poor families received cash assistance. Today, two in 10 do.
Experts anticipate that the amount of money that goes directly to families will decline further in the years to come even without being hastened along by the Republicans in Congress.
Making Good on Promises
The black community is one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting blocks. Using survey data collected from some 400 black interviewees, political scientist Theodore Johnson created a number of hypothetical political situations to assess black voting patterns. Party was an overwhelming factor in their political decision-making; faced with Republican and Democratic contenders with identical policy positions in identical social climates, the black respondents resoundingly chose the Democrat.
Unfortunately, their loyalty has not always been repaid with proportionate policy responsiveness, most disappointingly from Democrats. Political scientist Nick Stephanopoulos conducted a study to determine the extent of group political power on effecting policy outcomes at the state and federal levels. Unsurprisingly, black voters had less power than whites: Unanimous support among whites for a federal policy corresponded to a 60 percent chance of adoption, while unanimous support among black Americans for such a policy corresponded to a 10 percent chance of adoption. Somewhat correspondingly then, Stephanopoulos found that the less support a policy had among black Americans, the higher its likelihood of enactment. A policy with no black support had a 40 percent chance of enactment compared to the aforementioned 10 percent for a policy with unanimous support.
Analysis from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies corroborated Stephanopoulos’ 2015 findings. With data collected between 1972 and 2010, researchers found that black voters were “policy winners” 31.9 percent of the time, while white voters were “winners” 37.6 percent of the time. Less power means less policy.
Political scientist Paul Frymer first articulated the underpinnings of these studies in his 1999 book, Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America. He observed that politicians focus their appeals and energy toward white swing voters at the expense of black voters, thereby rendering them politically paralyzed. The result of the need to entice white voters is that explicit arguments for racial reconciliation during presidential campaigns have been waning since the 1970s, lest they turn white voters off.
In light of this history, it’s difficult to know exactly to what extent the party will advocate for black voters. However, there are encouraging signs to be found. In 2016, the Democratic Party platform pledged “to make it clear that black lives matter.” The party promised to commit itself to addressing issues that more explicitly affect the black community, including the racial wealth gap, and that implicitly affect them, like attempts to cut funding from SNAP and Medicaid. They actionized those promises in December 2017: Not a single Democrat in the House or the Senate voted for the Republican tax plan, a massive payout to the top one percent that will widen the racial wealth gap.
Progressives in the Democratic Party have every reason to buck their history of neglect, having seen what black voters can do electorally. In spite of a history of electoral disenfranchisement, electoral neglect, gerrymandering, and voting purges, black voters have potential to flip elections when they turn out at a time when Democrats desperately need them to. Furthermore, the party itself has explicitly acknowledged that it needs to do better. Mirroring Chairman Perez, Virgie Rollins, chair of the DNC’s Black Caucus, insisted that the party apparatus is well aware of this: “We learned valuable lessons last month and last night; when we invest in our communities, we win. The DNC knows black voters are a force to be reckoned with at the ballot box.”
The midterm elections are nine months from now. Progressives in the Democratic Party must actively compete for black votes, running not only on an anti-Trump platform, but on one that offers tangible protections from Republican assaults and tangible solutions to the challenges the black community faces. Not only is advocating for black Americans the right thing for the Democratic Party to do morally, but it also makes sense politically. Loyalty from the black community cannot be taken for granted, especially at a moment when the stakes of doing the opposite are so high.
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson is a freelance writer and a former research assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her work has appeared in AlterNet, U.S. News and World Report, Equal Voice News, and Common Dreams.