Nickel-and-Diming the Poor, Freebies for the Rich

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Under the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 budget, over 750,000 Americans stand to lose Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, better known as food stamps. The new rules would require all able-bodied adults without dependents to prove that they are working to receive this critical assistance, regardless of local job market conditions or other key factors.

The average SNAP benefit is $126 a month per person. That kind of money is virtually meaningless for wealthy folks, but can be a matter of life and death for the people that depend on it. By contrast, Republicans’ 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) gave millionaires a tax cut of over $17.4 billion in 2018 alone. Somehow, the Trump administration can afford to lavish the wealthy with tax breaks but can’t afford to help keep some of the poorest Americans from starving.

The new work requirements follow a familiar pattern of nickel-and-diming poor and vulnerable Americans while handing out tax breaks to the wealthy like candy. Republican lawmakers have put struggling Americans through a Byzantine patchwork of rules, tests, and requirements to access sorely needed benefits and in some cases essential rights.

A federal judge recently barred Kentucky and Arkansas from implementing similar work requirements for Medicaid, calling them “arbitrary and capricious.” Multiple states subject welfare recipients to drug tests, racking up enormous bills to uncover virtually no drug use. And in Florida, lawmakers are fighting to ban formerly incarcerated individuals from voting until they’ve paid all their court fees, effectively holding a basic American right hostage to debts that can be incredibly difficult to pay after serving a felony sentence.

At the same time, millionaires enjoy a buffet of unneeded, and largely unearned, perks in the tax code. Under TCJA, the wealthy can now write off the full cost of purchasing a private jet and pass on up to $22 million to their heirs completely tax-free. Corporate taxes were slashed by 40%. If the government is so hard up for cash that it needs to yank the food from poor Americans’ plates, how on earth can it afford to serve the rich these freebies on a silver platter?

Of course, the tax code has given wealthy Americans special treatment for a long time. Most Americans work for a living, whereas the wealthy make most of their income through investments; their money makes money. Yet the capital gains tax rate they pay is significantly lower than the income rate working folks pay on their paychecks (Warren Buffett has famously remarked that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary). The swiss cheese corporate tax code has enabled huge corporations with armies of tax lawyers to pay no federal taxes for years, even as the average business (including thousands of small businesses without the means to abuse loopholes in the tax code) ended up paying 29% in corporate taxes pre-TCJA. And the carried interest loophole, one of the most blatant loopholes in the code, gives hedge fund managers the ability to pay the capital gains rate on their income rather than, well, the income rate.

Republican explanations for their chronic belt-tightening are unsatisfying at best. In defense of the new work requirements, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue claimed, “we think we are helping people to, again, move into the dignity of work and the respect of providing for their families.” But taking away something that helps keep someone from going under does not help them get ahead. When the Trump administration proposed cutting funding for Meals on Wheels in 2017, then-budget director Mick Mulvaney said the cuts were “compassionate”. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos called proposed 2020 cuts in education “tough decisions.”

To hear them tell it, Uncle Sam is the one struggling to get by, not the Americans lining up at food banks or living in their cars, but that just doesn’t square with their disgustingly generous treatment of the wealthy. The absolute last thing this country needs is tax breaks for the rich, and they are no reason to cut the programs people are counting on.

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