While no one would argue that Donald Trump is a student of history, he and other Republicans seem to have taken a lesson from a former "dean" of the Senate, George Aiken (R-VT), who was alleged to have said of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that we should simply "declare victory and get out." How else to explain the things Trump and Republican politicians are doing to "address" poverty in America?
Most of us have learned that the president, members of his administration, and his congressional allies are adept at creating "alternative facts" through exaggeration, misrepresentation, and plain old dissembling. After a one-day summit meeting in June with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un generated nothing in the way of detailed policy agreements, Trump declared that the North Korean nuclear threat had been eliminated. (Real-world developments subsequently invalidated the president’s assertions.) Similarly, at an extraordinary press conference following an unprecedented private meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the president dismissed the consensus view of American intelligence agencies that Russia was actively working to undermine our electoral and democratic processes and declared that no such threat exists. And now the president is focusing his magical-thinking act on the home front.
In July, the Trump administration declared "victory" in the War on Poverty — the unofficial name for a series of federal initiatives introduced in the 1960s by the Johnson administration to help people move out of poverty and provide assistance to those in need — and declared that poverty in the United States was no longer a problem the federal government need worry about. The administration's declaration was stunning on two counts: Republicans have a long history of opposing the War on Poverty, and poverty remains a huge problem in America.
Established measures of poverty show that in 2016 about 12.7 percent of Americans — roughly 43 million people — lived in poverty. And a recent United Nations study found that 18.5 million Americans are facing "extreme impoverishment." In fact, close to 2 percent of the population – more than 5 million of us — live on no more than $4 a day, including government assistance. Even more alarming, more than a few moderate-income Americans are included in a Federal Reserve study which found that 40 percent of us would not be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense without having to sell something or borrow the money.
But using a controversial consumption argument, the White House denies these realities and claims that fewer than 10 million Americans, or only about 3 percent of us, are poor. Sadly, the president and his spokespeople are both wrong and disingenuous in their efforts to declare victory in the War on Poverty. Their proclamations are simply a reflection of an intensifying Republican war not on poverty but on the poor themselves.
Reinforcing a point I made here in May is the fact that Republicans are working very hard to cut more than $4.6 trillion from funding for mandatory entitlement programs, with over half that amount coming out of programs — Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, Pell Grants, the ACA — that overwhelmingly benefit low- and moderate-income Americans. Meanwhile, even as they target supports for the poor and needy, the president and conservative politicians are looking to augment their $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans with a proposal to index capital gains to inflation — an action that would add another $100 billion to the deficit, increase income inequality in the U.S., and further weaken our democracy.
Not content with their "victory," the White House also is trying to make federal medical, food, and housing assistance more “contingent” on beneficiaries’ ability to work — despite the fact that an analysis of an earlier but similar proposal found that the majority of the people who benefit from such programs are either elderly, disabled, or already work. In other words, insisting that those who are physically unable to work must work in order to qualify for benefits will merely punish the already over-burdened poor.
It's enough to make one think the White House and Republicans in Congress view the poor, rather than poverty, as the enemy. How else to explain the IRS's use of private debt collection agencies to go after tax delinquents — such agencies garner at least a third of the funds they recover from families facing "economic hardship" — when most unpaid taxes are owed by the 1 percent of taxpayers who are self-employed?
Nonprofit organizations and foundations should be able to see through the "alternative facts" used to justify Republican attacks on the poor. They're the same kind of "facts" promoted by the climate change deniers who are shaping the Trump administration's environmental policy, by federal officials and lawmakers who are weakening animal and wildlife protections, by Republican appointees who are methodically eroding consumer safeguards and making it harder for students to defend themselves against avaricious for-profit schools, by conservative politicians determined to eviscerate workers’ rights and roll back longstanding workplace protections.
As I've said here before: "Nonprofit organizations [and foundations]...cannot stand by while these regressive policies are proposed and advanced. They need to do everything they can to inform and activate the electorate so that Americans realize what is at stake, understand who truly represents their interests, and turn out to vote in the midterm elections.
"Too much is on the line for organizations to mind their own business and narrowly focus on [operations] … instead of advocacy and action. Organizations like Nonprofit Vote can help charities and foundations understand the rules about what they are allowed to do — and suggest tactics that make a difference."
What was true in May is even more true today. We're all in this together; the time to act is now.
Mark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University.