'The Fragile Social Safety Net': Q&A with Janet Gornick & Sheldon Danziger

The Fragile Social Safety NetOn Monday, April 3, the Graduate Center hosted “The Fragile Social Safety Net,” a panel discussion focused on the Trump administration’s next potential moves, from social spending cuts to tax breaks for the rich.

The GC recently spoke with two of the speakers: Professor Janet C. Gornick (Political Science/Sociology), director of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality; and Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation.

Gornick and Danziger discussed the possible motivations behind Trump’s plans and how federal cuts will impact states and cities.

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GC: To what extent are the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to programs targeted on the poor — Food Stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance — being driven by frustration from working class Americans who face economic insecurity but don’t qualify for means-tested programs?   

Danziger: Most of the recent proposals to cut benefits from the poor have come from Paul Ryan’s proposals that have developed over the last several years. I don’t think they have anything to do with the economic insecurities of working class Americans. We know from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that the Ryan Health Care proposal would have taken health insurance subsidies away from working class Americans.
What we have seen is a magician’s diversion that gets you to take your eye off the ball. What Trump is likely to propose next is a very large tax cut that will primarily benefit the top 1 percent.

The cuts in social welfare programs are designed to raise some revenue to offset the tax cuts. That is how CBO scored the failed Republican Health Care Act; Medicaid and other benefit cuts were being used to offset tax reductions for the rich.

Gornick: I agree with Sheldon, for the most part. Proposed cuts to social programs targeted on the poor, along the lines of cuts included in Trump’s first proposed budget, pre-date the 2016 election.
On the other hand, the perception that working-class Trump supporters favor cuts for the poor may be emboldening Trump and some Congressional Republicans to go even further than they normally would.

Eduardo Porter wrote a recent piece in The New York Times that caught my attention, “Trump Budget Proposal Reflects Working-Class Resentment of the Poor.” Highlighting recent research and some illustrative interviews, he noted a well-known fact: many working-class Trump voters believe that the major social insurance programs — e.g., Social Security and Medicare — legitimately reward work, while they find “welfare recipients” to be lazy and undeserving. Eduardo concluded: “While Mr. Trump is not the first Republican to propose cutting anti-poverty programs to pay for tax cuts, his bluntness breaks, at least rhetorically, with a Republican establishment that insists it cares about poverty.”

I think Eduardo might be right. Trump’s proposed cuts targeting the poor are not new, but a desire to reward his working class base may be adding fuel to an old fire.

If the Trump administration is successful in enacting major cuts in large federal social welfare programs, does this mean that state- and city-level policy-making will become substantially more important?   

S.D.: There is ample historical evidence that giving states more authority for social programs increases inequality. The most recent example would be the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. When the Supreme Court ruled that states had the right to refuse, inequality in access increased because access increased greatly in the Medicaid-expansion states relative to those that did not expand.
Some states will use flexibility to make improvements, whereas others will try to move money to other uses. Food Stamps provides our only national safety net. If states have more authority, access to Food Stamps is very likely to fall in many states.
And don’t be fooled by the fact that many cities are more progressive than the states. Some of the progressive cities that have, for example, increased the minimum wage, now find that state legislatures, controlled by Republicans, are trying to limit local authority. The Republicans are only for local control until they decide they are against it; intellectual consistency went out the window among them long ago.

J.G: Again, I mostly agree with Sheldon. One ought not count on states and localities to fill in for national-level cuts in social protections. Even when state/local politics are supportive of social policy expansion, many states and cities simply lack the fiscal capacity; balanced budget requirements often tie their hands further.
I also agree that we shouldn’t expect the current administration to lay the groundwork for state and local policy-making — in any coherent way. Indeed, they favor state and local control when it suits them (e.g., rights for transgendered students) and oppose it when it does not (e.g., abortion rights).
On the other hand, during periods when social policy advocates face a hostile environment in Washington, they often turn to states and cities, judging policy development at lower levels of government to be their only option. During the second Bush administration, many advocates of work-family programs pushed ahead, with some success, at the state and local level. A number of states enacted forms of paid family leave while others expanded pre-kindergarten; some cities added new protections for workers.

Many of these advocates would have much preferred national-level policy-making, but concluded that that route was hopeless. We may see similar policy efforts if Trump et al are able to enact deep cuts at the national level.

A question for Professor Danziger: You commented last year on the rise in men’s earnings, noting that they “are still lower than in the 1970s.” Trump has spoken about creating new jobs and raising wages for Americans. Given his administration’s claims and actions to date, do you see a reason to believe in his promise?

S.D.: President Trump has no serious plan to create new jobs and raise wages. Since the 1970s, labor-saving technological changes, globalization, the decline of unions, changes in employer practices that disadvantage workers and favor top management and shareholders have all contributed to stagnant wages for many workers and rising incomes for the elite.
Policies that would help raise wages, like higher minimum wages and better enforcement of regulations on working conditions, have been taken off the table by this administration. There are no plans, such as there were in the 2009 Stimulus bill, to hire workers to repair and replace ailing public infrastructure.
The failed health care reform bill would have cut taxes on the rich and cut public benefits for the poor. I am concerned that the Administration's labor market policies will have the same effect — changes that would increase the power and profits of firms and reduce the wages and working conditions of workers.

A question for Professor Gornick: You’ve studied work-family policies, such as paid family leave and child care. The president has said that he will extend policy provisions for working families. What do you expect to see from the new administration?
J.G.: During the presidential campaign, Trump’s team put out a plan calling for policy expansions in both paid leave and child care. That was unusual; Republicans rarely tackle either of these policy issues. They were clearly motivated by a desire to compete with the Clinton campaign, which was calling for expanding work-family policies, the perception that Trump was “anti-woman,” and — by all accounts — pressure from Ivanka Trump.
While supporters of paid leave and child care — including me — welcomed Republican attention to these issues, our enthusiasm was limited, to say the least. The leave proposal was for women only (which is absurd in 2017) and the child care proposal involved a highly regressive tax plan. (The Tax Policy Center described the child care plan as a “gift to the rich.”) Neither proposal would be advocated by serious, contemporary policy advocates.
Now, the million-dollar question is: Will they push ahead with either of these? We’ll see.

Submitted on: MAR 30, 2017

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