Spotlight Exclusives

Changing the Narrative on the Economy and the Role of Government

Melissa Boteach, Center for American Progress Melissa Boteach, Center for American Progress, posted on

In July the Trump administration issued a report declaring that “the War on Poverty is largely over and a success.” And so, the report reasons, it is now appropriate to take away food, healthcare, and housing from people who cannot prove they are working a minimum number of hours a week. It’s an astounding display of circular logic to claim that health care, food assistance, and housing have successfully reduced material hardship, and so we should cut them because fewer people are now suffering.

In this case, the narrative that Trump would like you to believe is that people on “welfare” are to blame for their struggles, particularly since Trump is crowing about a low unemployment rate. If that’s the story that prevails, Trump’s proposal to take away food, housing, and healthcare from struggling families starts to make sense. If low unemployment is the only indicator that matters in the economy, just threatening people with hunger and homelessness if they don’t get a job should do the trick.

But make no mistake: when Trump paints Medicaid, nutrition assistance, Pell grants, affordable housing and other means-tested support as “welfare,” he’s actually attacking ALL of us. Four out of five Americans will experience at least a year of significant economic insecurity and 70 percent of us will turn to a means-tested program at some point.  Job loss, cut hours, volatile incomes, a new baby, caregiving responsibilities, divorce, ill health, disability are all common triggers of a spell of poverty or factors that could make meeting an arbitrary “work requirement” challenging.

There is plenty of data to show that taking healthcare, food, and housing away from people doesn’t help them find a job any faster. But from a values-based perspective, most Americans get that the last thing we need when we’re down is for someone to kick us while we’re on the floor.

Much thoughtful ink has already been spilled reminding the country that poverty does, in fact, still exist. Scholars have underscored that using words like “welfare” to describe our public investments in ensuring basic standards of living stokes racial resentment, a well-worn tactic to draw fire away from the wealthy elite who benefit from a splintered working class. And while Trump may try to convince the American people poverty has gone the way of the dodo bird, the data show a struggling working class who have seen their wages fall and their healthcare premiums rise in the wake of an unpopular tax law and Trump’s Obamacare sabotage.

But discrediting the White House report is not enough. To cut poverty and expand opportunity, we must offer solutions that would actually address the challenges facing working families. And that requires a different narrative about the economy and who it is and isn’t working for than what the Trump administrations report offers up.

The data show a story that goes something like this: The economy is not working for regular people. It hasn’t been for a long time. The issues pre-date Trump, and they pre-date Obama. Unemployment numbers fluctuate with the latest recession or economic expansion in ways that make the pain more or less acute. But we’re going on 10 years of economic growth since the Great Recession, and wages are essentially flat while costs of living continue to rise with the gains concentrating among the wealthiest. People of color have borne the brunt of the pain, and yet Trump’s use of the word “welfare” is designed to isolate their cause from the interests of struggling whites.

Unfortunately, the data also reveal a pervasive distrust of government to solve the problems people face.

With so much dysfunction in Washington, it’s easy to forget that when government mobilizes resources, it can have a tangible and positive difference in people’s lives. The Affordable Care Act protected people with pre-existing conditions and helped nearly 30 million people access insurance. Expansions of unemployment insurance in the Recovery Act prevented 1.4 million foreclosures. And safeguards to promote clean air, clean water, safe medication and food, and basic labor standards are crucial to public health and financial security.

There is no shortage of big ideas and solutions to provide greater economic stability and opportunity to working families: a federal job guarantee, paid family leave, investments in childcare and affordable housing, and strengthening worker voice on the job are all popular with the public. But enacting solutions at scale requires a belief that the government can be a force of good for its citizens, something Trump erodes further with each self-dealing scandal.

The White House Report is the tip of a very deep iceberg. Addressing it requires not just pushing back on the misinformation in the report itself, but a wholesale effort to reset the narrative about the economy and the role of government in making it work for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

Melissa Boteach is the senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at American Progress.




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