Cutting aid to poor people doesn’t magically make them less poor

Reducing assistance for poor people in the U.S. is a centerpiece of the budget the Trump administration unveiled Tuesday. It calls for huge cuts to Medicaid, Social Security disability payments, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food assistance and other anti-poverty programs. It also would pass more responsibility for many of these programs to states and implement work requirements, like Maine’s, to be eligible for assistance. On the other side of the ledger, it would lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

The theory, articulated by budget director Mick Mulvaney, is that if poor people are offered less help, they’ll stop being poor.

This should sound familiar to Maine residents because it is precisely the false logic repeated by Gov. Paul LePage and members of his administration to justify cuts to social programs here in the Pine Tree State.

The LePage administration, especially the Department of Health and Human Services, likes to tout the decline in the number of Maine people receiving government help. What these numbers don’t reveal is that the need for help has not gone away.

Since September 2014, the number of Maine people receiving food stamps has dropped more than 16 percent, to 185,600 in April from 222,000. Between 2014 and 2015, Maine posted the largest decline in the nation in its food stamp caseload.

But that doesn’t mean fewer Maine people are going hungry. As food insecurity has eased nationally, it has grown worse in Maine. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the percentage of Maine households that experience food insecurity — 15.8 percent in 2015 — has grown over the past decade and exceeds the national average. In 2015, Maine had the third highest rate in the nation of households with very low food security; 7.4 percent of households consistently struggled to secure enough food.

With food assistance more and more limited, hungry Mainers have turned to food pantries, making an emergency source of sustenance a way of life. In a survey of 2,000 food pantry users conducted last year by Good Shepherd Good Bank and the social services organization Preble Street, 82 percent of patrons said they visited their local food pantry at least once per month. A quarter of those surveyed said they had lost their food stamp benefits in the past year, and 59 percent said they were using food pantries more in 2016 than in the previous year.

Beyond ensuring that Americans, about half of them children, don’t go hungry, studies have found that food assistance improves health for parents and children, lifts families out of poverty and does not discourage recipients from working.

Despite these benefits, the Trump budget proposes to cut food stamps, officially called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by $192 billion — about a quarter of its funding — over the next decade. It would also slash funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

In Maine, LePage administration policies have resulted in 14,550 fewer children receiving help from TANF and in parents facing additional hurdles when attempting to gain access to assistance or to keep it.

From 2011 to 2015, the proportion of Maine children living in extreme poverty, family earnings of less than $10,000 per year, grew at eight times the national average, according to data from the Maine Center for Economic Policy. About 43,000 children in Maine are living in poverty, defined as a family income of about $20,000 or less for a family of three.

Trump and LePage are right to want to break the generational cycle of poverty, but taking away benefits doesn’t solve this problem. Jobs and training opportunities must be available, and wages must be high enough to cover living costs, such as food.

Presidential budgets are never adopted as they are written. With this one’s big math errors, faulty assumptions and downright cruelty to poor people, it will probably be more efficient for Congress to begin anew, perhaps using its April budget as a blueprint, instead of trying to turn the Trump plan into a realistic and reasonable budget that works for all Americans.