The research on the safety net predicts that what will follow such a rule will not be an increase in employment among low-income people, but an increase in deep poverty. Most people who can work do work, and perhaps especially under the “natural employment” scenario the Trump administration envisions as the floor for long-term food support, those people who can’t find or secure jobs are not likely out of a job solely because they lack motivation. And, as has been argued when state governments have attempted to implement more work requirements and eligibility restrictions on SNAP and other safety-net programs like Medicaid, the stated logic of work requirements is largely self-defeating. The requirements are already burdensome and curtail the ability of the program to prepare people for work. “The SNAP program already has work requirements,” according to a brief from the liberal Center for American Progress, “which in reality function as harsh time limits for unemployed and underemployed workers, as well as people who face serious barriers to work.”
According to opponents of the proposed USDA rule, it’s a naked power play, one that uses anti-welfare rhetoric to inflame existing racial disparities in wealth and employment. A statement from Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says, “the Administration is now proposing to implement, through executive action, what it failed to secure through legislation.” With respect to the inherent racial disparities at play, the statement reads: “People of color would be at particular risk, given their much higher unemployment rates and continued racial discrimination in labor markets.”
In all, the proposed rule does fit in recent uses of executive action to make sharp cuts to the safety net, public welfare, and public health even as public opinion is clearly in favor of the provision of those services. Under Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, states have been given guidance allowing work requirements to be tacked on to state Medicaid programs, although that directive has been tied up in courts. Earlier this year, under Secretary Ben Carson, the Department of Housing and Urban Development attempted to triple the minimum rents for federally subsidized housing to combat what it called “perverse incentives, including discouraging these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.” Carson walked back that plan this summer.
It’s possible that the new rule from the USDA could be gummed up in a similar way to those policies, but clearly they all represent a presidential paradigm that will use any tools at hand to kick people off the safety net. And, even after an election in which concern for public programs helped drive record numbers of people to the polls in a “blue wave” election for Democrats, the message to those voters from the White House is that their vote does not matter.