A presidential budget isn’t so much a policy proposal as a statement of an administration’s moral vision for the country. The budget presented by President Donald Trump on Thursday is a document fundamentally unconcerned with the government’s role in improving the plight of its most vulnerable citizens.
That message is clear in the budget’s topline proposals and its deeper details. Trump calls for a $54 billion boost in defense spending and immigration enforcement. More border patrol agents, more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, more fighter jets that don’t work, and a border wall with Mexico. To offset those fresh expenses, he wants to take an ax to a host of anti-poverty programs ― everything from public housing to food programs helping elderly people with disabilities.
This was an ideological choice. When explaining why it would eliminate a $35 million affordable housing program, the administration declared the endeavor simply wasn’t the government’s business: “This program is duplicative of efforts funded by philanthropy and other more flexible private sector investments.”
Republicans have long believed that communities, religious groups and volunteer organizations are often best equipped to help those in need. But many of them still acknowledge government has some role to play in these endeavors. Over the years, for example, they have supported AmeriCorps ― a national service program that Trump’s budget would eliminate.
That Trump’s budget is devoid of even modest nods to social welfare is not something that the administration is trying to hide. Instead, they’ve turned the argument on its head. At a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was asked how he could justify cutting programs for the elderly and the poor while ramping up spending in other areas. In response, he insisted that, on the contrary, taking food from the mouths of hungry children should be seen as an act of “compassion.”
“I think it’s one of the most compassionate things we can do,” Mulvaney said, referring to reducing anti-poverty spending. The government, he declared, has an urgent moral priority to ensure that “the single mom of two in Detroit” doesn’t pay for programs that don’t serve “a proper function.”
As an example of such failures, Mulvaney invoked after-school programs that provide meals to low-income kids. “They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they get better in school,” he said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”
In fact, there is substantial evidence that school meal programs improve academic performance. More to the point, Mulvaney’s argument simply ignored the notion that feeding hungry kids might be something society would deem important ― test score improvements be damned.
He had a similar take on the popular Meals on Wheels program, which delivers food to elderly people and others with disabilities who have trouble leaving their home. Trump’s budget calls for the program’s funding to be slashed as, Mulvaney insisted, the program doesn’t work.
“We look at this as $140 billion spent over 40 years without the appreciable benefit to show for that type of expenditure,” he said.
Mulvaney is just wrong ― unless you believe that feeding the indigent is of no value. Several studies suggest that home meal delivery programs don’t just give senior citizens food ― the meals improve their overall health and keep them out of nursing homes. (It also received only a fraction of the $140 billion Mulvaney mentioned.)
“Home-delivered meal programs improve diet quality and increase nutrient intakes among participants,” according to a 2014 review of eight studies that looked at the programs. “These programs are also aligned with the federal cost-containment policy to rebalance long-term care away from nursing homes to home- and community-based services by helping older adults maintain independence and remain in their homes and communities as their health and functioning decline.”
Of course, Mulvaney’s deep compassion for the burdens imposed on taxpayers evaporates with other Trump administration priorities. He doesn’t bemoan the plight of the poor when discussing how their taxes will be spent on a border wall or a fighter jet. Nor does he grapple with the fact that the single mom of two in Detroit may be among the roughly 45 percent of households who don’t pay federal income taxes precisely because they are poor.
Trump’s budget will almost assuredly never make it into law. Members of Congress are tasked with appropriating money and setting funding level. And even Republicans on Thursday could only offer up the most perfunctory of supportive statements for the blueprint the president has outlined.
But the concept of governance that Mulvaney articulated and that Trump put his name to, has been echoed repeatedly throughout the Republican Party. And it’s apparent in other legislative pursuits they’re undertaking.
Just last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) described the GOP health care replacement bill as an “act of mercy” ― even though the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 24 million people will lose their coverage in the next decade if it becomes law. The freedom not to buy insurance, in this case, takes preeminence over the very real likelihood that individuals will suffer (and, yes, die) in the absence of health care coverage they currently have.
Trump, of course, pitched himself as a man with a different set of values than those enshrined in his budget. He offered a new social welfare version of Republicanism in which everyone (excluding immigrants and Muslims) received health insurance, the poor were not shunned and the government cleaned up America’s cities, air and water. His embrace of the health care bill written by Ryan belies that. And his budget makes it even more apparent that the rhetoric was nothing more than an empty sales pitch to struggling households.