MATTHEW BOOSE: Trump’s welfare reform could be a big winner – if done right

January 4, 2018

MATTHEW BOOSE: Trump’s welfare reform could be a big winner – if done right Left - Evan El-Amin / Right - /

With the biggest overhaul of the tax code in over 30 years signed into law, the Trump administration is heading into the new year with an opportunity to reform the welfare system.

Trump will meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at Camp David this weekend to discuss the legislative calendar for the year, with welfare reform topping the agenda. A fault-line runs between Ryan, a budget hawk, and McConnell, a pragmatist who sees bipartisan support — which will be difficult to muster — as essential.

The Trump administration has already moved to impose strict work requirements on welfare recipients following an era of leniency under the Barack Obama administration that ballooned food stamp enrollment. The Department of Agriculture gave states more flexibility in imposing work requirements to food stamp recipients, and federal health officials are encouraging states to impose work requirements for Medicaid, something Obama never did.

Any attempt at reforming welfare, however modest, will meet obstruction from Democrats.

Republicans will have to leave healthcare entitlements intact to maintain broad GOP support, and may have to use special budget rules to nudge legislation past Democrats.

Still, welfare reform to rein in the excesses of the safety net, especially those resulting from Obama-era policy, is needed. The War on Poverty inaugurated by former President Lyndon B. Johnson has long since become a slow-crawling trench battle with no end in sight; the welfare state created a culture of dependency that all but ensures that many Americans remain poor from generation to generation.

Republicans have a rare opportunity to streamline the system. And despite liberal hyperbole, Trump has no plans to cut entitlements. Welfare reform would be significant enough to make a meaningful difference while not giving Democrats free ammunition to paint Republican lawmakers as selfish budget hawks.

Eradicating dependency

Republicans have long floated ideas of reforming welfare to put recipients on a path to self-sufficiency. Self-reliance was also the credo behind former President Bill Clinton’s reform 20 years ago.

Former President Clinton’s welfare reform required adult childless recipients of SNAP, a state-run food stamps program, to work at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits. Failure to meet this requirement limits recipients to three months of benefits in any three-year period.

But Obama allowed states to waive the work requirement as part of his 2009 stimulus. As a result, SNAP enrollment among adult childless recipients went up about 2 million, to 3.9 million recipients in 2010.

SNAP enrollment peaked in 2013 with nearly 48 million on the dole. Enrollment dipped somewhat as the recession tapered off, but remains high. American taxpayers spent $70 billion on SNAP in 2016.

When the Trump administration began to restore work rules, food stamp enrollment dropped sharply. In Alabama, enrollment in 13 counties dropped 85 percent from 5,538 recipients to 831.

About 42 million Americans are on food stamps today.

With the economy recovering, there is no reason why 42 million Americans should remain dependent. Essential to making America Great Again is making America Work Again. Nothing evokes American greatness quite like the idea of Americans working hard and getting things done.

If Trump and Ryan focus on Making America Work Again — while reining in hawkish impulses to slash the budget — they could pass meaningful reform without feeding into liberal disinformation campaigns.

Treading carefully

Trump has so far stuck to his campaign promise not to touch Social Security and Medicare, and there is no sign of that changing. So far, the administration has taken steps toward changing how food stamps and Medicaid are administered to reduce waste and ensure the benefits are being used appropriately.

But no matter how modest the reforms ahead, Democrats will paint efforts to impose more stringent work requirements as a one-two punch to the working class by the wealthy. Liberals ran the popularity of the GOP tax plan into the ground with a massive disinformation campaign that obscured the fact that all Americans will get a tax cut next year.

That considered, Republicans shouldn’t fear alienating voters with welfare reform. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t tread carefully.

There is broad support in the GOP to impose more stringent work requirements on Medicaid and food stamps recipients. But moving on Medicare and Social Security would be unpopular and make passing what would already be a difficult bill next to impossible.

Republican lawmakers told The Hill that changes to Social Security and Medicare wouldn’t fly with them.

“If [entitlement reform] involves making sure that people that are on public subsidies are actually working or looking for work or getting trained for work, sure, I’m open to that sort of thing,” Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) told The Hill. “If we’re talking about taking away benefits that senior citizens have earned, that — to me, that’s unfair to people.”

The budget

The Republican tax plan is expected to reduce federal revenue by $1 trillion. If Republicans were to gut the budget for food stamps or Medicaid, Democrats would say that the GOP exploited the deficit to justify fresh entitlement cuts.

Ryan has said that healthcare entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid are the “big drivers of debt.” But Ryan is unlikely to get his wish on healthcare spending given lack of support from Trump and the party.

It would be wise to focus reform efforts on reducing fraud and abuse and be surgical about any budget cuts. Flying too close to the sun could founder a rare opportunity for meaningful reform while giving Democrats more ammunition than they already have to portray Trump and Republicans as selfish oligarchs.

Would it pass?

Passing the legislation would be difficult in a bitterly partisan Congress. Divisions between Republican and Democratic lawmakers deepened this year in fights over immigration, healthcare, and tax reform.

Ryan will have a difficult time winning the support of McConnell, who insists that bipartisan support for welfare reform is necessary. While reform to food stamps and Medicaid work requirements enjoy broad support among Republicans, cuts to entitlements would likely break a coalition.

Moreover, Democrats will certainly oppose any effort to reform welfare. Republicans might end up relying on special budget “reconciliation” rules to pass a bill through.

Provided that Republicans stay on task and keep their goals within reach, welfare reform would be a win for a working America and a feather in Trump’s cap. Trump and Republicans would be able to claim credit for getting Americans working again.

Voters are already feeling confident in the economy again.

Getting Americans off the dole would further bolster the message that America is recovering from the Recession and moving on to a better future.

Matthew Boose

Matthew Boose is a staff writer for Conservative Institute. He has a Bachelor's degree from Stony Brook University and has contributed to The Daily Caller and The Stony Brook Press.