President Trump and his colleagues in Congress have nearly finalized legislation to secure tax cuts for billionaires and wealthy corporations. After months of wheeling and dealing to secure the votes they need to pass the bill, conservative lawmakers have started to reveal their plans to pay for it—by slashing vital programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and affordable housing.
I spoke with Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) to examine where conservatives are headed and what they really mean when they use buzzwords like “entitlement reform” and “welfare reform.”
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Rebecca Vallas: “Robin Hood in reverse” has always been the congressional GOP’s playbook, and their most recent budget proposals released earlier this year were basically a hit list of programs they want to slash. But is it surprising to hear them say it out loud while they’re trying to do “tax reform” that is actually tax cuts for billionaires and corporations?
Rep. Jim McGovern: I’m not surprised because congressional Republicans have never been enthusiastic about programs that feed people who are hungry or provide them health care or some sort of security. They’ve had this kind survival of the fittest approach to government—if you’re well off, great; if you’re not, too bad. But we have a group of Republicans in Congress that are determined to undo all government, and if they succeed with their agenda a lot of people are going to be hurt.
RV: I’ll have to confess, I was surprised to hear Congress dress their calls for cuts to these programs up in their same standard language about deficit reduction and unsustainable deficits. Was it surprising to you?
JM: I mean the tax plan adds over a trillion dollars to the deficit, and this is not a tax cut for the middle class. Basically this is a tax giveaway to big corporation, to those who are very well off and those who are very well connected. It will be a tax increase on middle class families, and it will be a tax increase on those struggling to get into the middle class.
RV: I want to focus on programs that people typically think about as anti-poverty programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a letter to state food stamp administrators who administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and some people have interpreted it as the Trump administration actually encouraging states to take steps to make it harder for struggling workers and families to access nutrition assistance when they need it.
JM: We’re going to have to wait and see what USDA is up to, but they haven’t been very forthcoming and I don’t have a good feeling about this. Conservatives have for years wanted to cut programs like SNAP. They have presented as fact a version of SNAP that is clearly not true—that the program helps people who are lazy, encourages dependency. But of the people on SNAP, the vast majority are not expected to work—they are kids, they’re senior citizens, they’re people who are disabled. The majority of people who can work, do, and they earn so little they still qualify for SNAP.
There are some things we can live without, but food isn’t one of them. The average SNAP benefit is about $1.40 per person per meal. You can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that. We should be talking about expanding the SNAP benefit so that people have the resources to buy not just food, but nutritious food for their families. And we ought to remind people that this program is incredibly successful. It is one of the most efficiently and effectively run programs by the federal government and has very low fraud and error rate. It also is a program that is an economic stimulus—it helps our farmers, our grocers, our economy overall.
To the extent that SNAP needs to be improved, it is that the benefit is inadequate. Most people on SNAP end up having to go to food banks at the end of the month.
RV: So there is a huge gap between what Congressional Republicans make it sound like these programs are about and the reality of who gets helped by them. The fact is that 70 percent of Americans will turn to at least one means-tested program at some point during their lives. But that seems to be the playbook—to flat out lie about what these programs are and who they help.
JM: Right, they promote this myth that somehow programs like SNAP promote dependency. The average time that households are on SNAP is 12 months or less. We do hill briefings with people who had been on SNAP and are now quite successful, and they remind Members of Congress how important that benefit was when they needed it. But this Congress has demonized poor people, belittled their struggle, and blamed them for all of our economic problems.
I wish there was more of an outcry about making sure that work pays in this country. If you work in this country you ought not to have to live in poverty. The fact that we haven’t addressed this issue the way we should is very, very costly. There are all these avoidable medical costs that are associated with food insecurity. Kids can’t learn if they go to school hungry. Workers aren’t productive if they go to work hungry. Senior citizens who have to make choices between prescription drugs or putting food on the table and they choose to take a prescription drug on an empty stomach end up in a hospital. Women who are pregnant don’t give birth to healthy babies unless they have adequate nutrition. And so we need to take this issue more seriously than we have, and we certainly shouldn’t be demonizing people who are struggling.
RV: The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for the past almost nine years because Republicans in Congress refuse to raise it. And yet their rhetoric is all about “self-sufficiency.”
JM: The fact of the matter is that the jobs that are out there keep people in poverty. And so when I hear Speaker Ryan or Republicans talk about self-sufficiency I respond by screaming that people are working out there. They’re working harder than ever and they are still stuck in poverty. So let us address the issue of wages. Let’s help lift people up.
[Instead] we have Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker moving forward with drug testing some food stamp recipients. I have an idea. Let’s go drug test Scott Walker—maybe people who have stupid ideas like that ought to be drug tested. Because that is insulting. We’re not saying drug test big heads of defense contractors who get billions of taxpayer dollars. We’re not talking about farmers who get crop insurance, we’re not talking about testing any other recipient of government money—just poor people. That is just offensive and insulting and that’s the kind of stuff that is coming out of this Congress.
Hunger is a political condition when all is said and done.
RV: Do you think that the public still buys Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump as champions of the forgotten man and the forgotten woman, or do you think that the tax fight has laid bare what they’re really after?
JM: Well I think the tax fight has laid bare what they’re really after. I think their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and come up with a replacement that would throw 30 million off of health insurance has shown who they really are. I really believe that a lot of people who may have supported Paul Ryan or Donald Trump in the last go around are now seeing who they really are. These aren’t champions for the forgotten man or woman. And they are not champions for people struggling in poverty. They are the problem; they are the enemy of so many people in this country who are trying to make ends meet. And people need to stand up and fight back.
I’m proud to live in a country that has a program designed to make sure that people don’t go hungry. I’m proud to live in a country that has programs like Medicare that guarantee health care for our older population. I’m glad we have programs like Medicaid. I believe that everybody is important—that nobody should be invisible in this country and that the whole purpose of government is to be there for those who need a helping hand during a very difficult time. Donald Trump doesn’t need government. He’s a billionaire. But there are millions of families in this country that do and they’re every bit as important as he is.
We need to take back our country. We need to watch very carefully what Paul Ryan means by entitlement reform and we have to make sure that he doesn’t view programs like SNAP as an ATM machine to pay for the corporate welfare that is part of their tax bill.
This interview was originally conducted for Off-Kilter. It was edited for length and clarity.