If you’re poor or low-income in the U.S. and take advantage of government safety net programs, you could be affected by a number of new rules and actions proposed by the Trump administration. Most of the changes are still pending, and anti-poverty groups are trying to stop them from going into effect. Some of the proposals already face legal challenges.
President Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to get more people off government aid and into the workforce so they can become self-sufficient. To help do that, he issued an executive order last year to reduce poverty “by promoting opportunity and economic mobility.”
In it, Trump called on federal agencies to streamline existing welfare programs, strengthen work requirements and make sure that taxpayer money is spent on “those who are truly in need.”
But anti-poverty advocates say the administration’s proposals would hurt, rather than help, poor Americans. They say it will make it more difficult for those trying to become self-sufficient by denying them food, housing and medical assistance when they need it most.
“They really are trying to use every agency to make life harder for people who are low-income,” says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, which represents about 100 anti-poverty groups nationwide, calls the volume of proposals targeting the safety net “head spinning.”
Here are some of the main proposals and their status:
- The Department of Agriculture has called for stricter enforcement of a requirement that able-bodied adults work, volunteer or get job training for at least 20 hours a week to continue getting their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, after three months. Currently, most states waive that requirement. The administration would make that much more difficult to do. Critics estimate that 750,000 SNAP recipients would likely have their benefits cut off because they would be unable to find jobs or otherwise meet the requirements. The public comment period on the proposal ended April 10 and attracted more than 100,000 comments, overwhelmingly negative.
- The Department of Agriculture is weighing a rule to make it harder for people to qualify for both SNAP and other welfare assistance. Currently, states have the flexibility to waive asset and income limits for those who get both food stamps and benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Anti-poverty advocates argue that changing that would penalize hundreds of thousands of working poor families by taking away their food aid just as they start earning enough to pay for other living expenses, such as child care and housing. But supporters of the proposal say states are exploiting a loophole in the law to give aid to those who would otherwise be ineligible. It is unclear exactly what the administration will propose and when. The rule has yet to be published in the Federal Register.
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed rescinding an Obama-era regulation that would require payday lenders to determine whether a borrower has the ability to repay the loan. That regulation, which the Trump administration has delayed until next year, was intended to prevent low-income borrowers from becoming saddled with ballooning debt because payday loans can carry annual interest rates of 300% or more. Consumer advocates say low-income individuals often have to take out new payday loans to pay off earlier ones. The Trump administration argues that rescinding the Obama-era rule will encourage more competition in the industry and provide more options for borrowers. The public comment period on the proposed change closed May 15. It is unclear when a final rule will be issued.
- The Office of Management and Budget is considering whether to recalculate the official poverty line using a different inflation measure, one that many economists say would paint a more accurate picture of the price increases that consumers face. But critics say the change would not reflect how inflation affects low- and moderate-income families and, over time, would lead to millions of people seeing their government benefits — such as SNAP, Medicaid, energy assistance and school lunches — reduced or eliminated. The Obama and George W. Bush administrations tried to make a similar change in the poverty line calculation with no luck. The public comment period ends June 21.
- The Department of Homeland Security has proposed limiting the ability of immigrants to get green cards if they receive government benefits, such as SNAP or housing aid. The administration says it is enforcing existing law, which seeks to block immigrants who could need assistance and become a “public charge.” But immigrants’ rights groups say the proposed change would affect not only immigrants but also family members who are U.S. citizens. Social service providers around the country report that they have already seen a big drop in immigrant families signing up for assistance, including Medicaid and SNAP, because of fears that it could hurt their efforts to get green cards or become citizens. The comment period on the proposed rule ended in December. More than a quarter of a million comments were received, mostly opposed to the change. It is unclear when the final rule will be issued.
- President Trump signed a memorandum May 23 calling on federal agencies to enforce a law requiring those who sponsor green card holders to reimburse government agencies for the cost of any public benefits used by the immigrant. The administration says the law has not been fully enforced. “To protect benefits for American citizens, immigrants must be financially self-sufficient,” Trump said in a statement announcing the move. Immigrants’ rights advocates say the announcement is part of a larger campaign by the Trump administration to restrict both legal and illegal immigration, and that the change will discourage green card holders from applying for benefits for which they or other family members are eligible.
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed a rule that would deny housing assistance to families with one or more members who are undocumented immigrants. The administration notes that those in the country illegally are not eligible for housing aid, although HUD now prorates rental assistance for such “mixed status” families to take that into account. By HUD’s own estimate, 55,000 children who are either citizens or legal residents could lose their housing as a result of the move. Critics call the proposal “cruel” and are waging a vigorous campaign to block it. HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended it, saying that “it seems only logical that taxpaying American citizens should be taken care of first” and that the change would provide more aid for needy Americans. However, HUD’s own analysis concludes that the rule would lead to fewer people getting housing aid and to an increase in homelessness. The public comment period for the proposed rule runs through July 9, but House Democrats are trying to prevent HUD from enforcing such a rule.
- The Agriculture Department is expected to propose a rule later this year similar to HUD’s proposal, to restrict the use of rural housing assistance for households that have one or more members who are undocumented immigrants.
- HUD has proposed that the operators of federally funded homeless shelters be allowed to determine which services transgender individuals can use. Operators could base their decisions on their religious beliefs, among other factors. Critics say that if the rule is adopted, transgender individuals could be kicked out of shelters or forced to use ones that serve a gender they do not identify with. Carson had assured lawmakers at a congressional hearing May 21 that he did not anticipate eliminating Obama-era rules that protect transgender individuals from housing discrimination, and lawmakers were angry to see the proposed rule on a list published by the administration the following day. Details of the rule are expected to be made public later this year for comment. About 1 in 5 transgender individuals experiences homelessness at some point in their life, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Medicaid work requirement
- The administration has approved waivers allowing eight states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, although legal challenges have blocked such efforts in Kentucky and Arkansas. The administration argues that the requirement will encourage people to join the workforce, but opponents say that instead it will deny low-income families much-needed medical aid. About 18,000 Arkansas residents lost their Medicaid coverage when the work requirements went into effect in that state last year.
Census citizenship question
- Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has proposed adding a question to the 2020 census asking whether an individual is a U.S. citizen. The administration says that it needs the information to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, but opponents believe that the real motive is to diminish minority representation. Civil rights groups argue that the question will discourage immigrant and noncitizen households from participating in the census. The result would be an undercount, especially in areas with large immigrant populations. Opponents of the change say low-income communities would be harmed because the census numbers are used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid, including many safety net benefits. They’ve challenged the citizenship question in court. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in June.
- The Department of Labor has proposed increasing the wage level below which workers would automatically be eligible for overtime pay on time worked over 40 hours a week. The Trump administration would raise the current $23,660 a year threshold to $35,308, which would make an estimated 1 million more workers eligible for overtime. However, the Trump proposal would replace an Obama-era rule that would have increased the level to $47,476 and covered four times as many workers. That plan has been blocked in court, in part because of strong opposition from small businesses, which say it would impose a big financial burden. The public comment period on the Trump proposal ends June 12.
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