Hundreds To Protest Potential Safety Net Cuts At GOP Retreat

Activists want to put a human face on public assistance.

Hundreds of activists plan to converge on congressional Republicans’ winter retreat in West Virginia to protest potential cuts to the social safety net, including a recent Trump administration policy allowing states to enact Medicaid work requirements.

The protest march, which will culminate at The Greenbrier, a hotel in White Sulphur Springs, is due to include a sizable contingent of people from West Virginia who depend on means-tested assistance programs like Medicaid, food stamps and cash welfare. Buses are also slated to bring protesters to the event from nine other states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arkansas.

“We’re stronger together. And right now, more than ever, we need our elected officials to be looking at how we expand the safety net, how we provide more opportunities and more stability to communities across the country, not less,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, a co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a progressive umbrella group organizing the event with the help of local partners.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has long supported scaling back the U.S. welfare state.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has long supported scaling back the U.S. welfare state.
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Since the overwhelming majority of West Virginians are white, the planned demonstration at The Greenbrier provides an opportunity to dispel the racist misnomer that the safety net is somehow designed to benefit people of color, according to Epps-Addison. The action will also be directed at mobilizing West Virginians, two-thirds of whom voted for President Donald Trump, Epps-Addison noted, and who may not be aware of the threat his policies could pose to their living standards.

Trump and congressional Republicans play up alleged over-dependence on the safety net “as a dog whistle to get people like the folks in West Virginia to support an agenda that is going to harm them more than anyone else,” she said. “We’re not gonna let them try to brainwash or confuse the white working class without standing up and having a say and helping people understand how these policies impact them.”

CPD Action, which played a key role in mass acts of civil disobedience against the Republican tax bill, is concerned that GOP leaders are gearing up to pay for the $1.4 trillion their tax cuts will add to the debt with massive cuts to social programs.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in December that reforming “health care entitlements” ― Medicaid and Medicare ― are a top priority. Later that month, in an apparent reference to safety-net programs like food stamps, Ryan declared, “Welfare reform is our next big lift.”

“We don’t want to add to that feeling of distress when you are trying to make ends meet.”

- Sammi Brown, West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition

A more immediate worry for progressive groups is the Trump administration’s policy of allowing states to experiment with work requirements for their Medicaid programs.

Liberal policy experts see the restrictions as a punitive policy that is likely to cause vulnerable people needless suffering by depriving them of essential health care.

The vast majority of non-elderly, adult Medicaid beneficiaries already work or are members of households that work, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Those who do not work are frequently ill or disabled, caring for a loved one, or report being unable to find a job, KFF found.

In addition, there is ample evidence that ensuring easier access to health care makes people more, not less, likely to seek work opportunities.

West Virginia activists like Sammi Brown, federal campaign director for the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, are already fighting a state-level proposal to add work requirements to Medicaid.

“We know that if you did not have to [seek help], you wouldn’t,” Brown said. “We don’t want to add to that feeling of distress when you are trying to make ends meet.”

If Congress were to impose additional budget cuts and restrictions on federal funding for social programs, it would hit West Virginia particularly hard. The state has the fourth-highest percentage of people on food stamps, and the seventh-highest rate of Medicaid enrollment, with about 30 percent of residents receiving coverage from the program.

Courtney Powell, a 29-year-old single mother of three living in Wheeling, depends on Medicaid to finance medical coverage for her 4-year-old son who has a rare form of hemophilia.

Powell has foregone work to care for her son, who needs round-the-clock attention and is frequently hospitalized. Federal disability benefits for his condition allow Powell to make ends meet.

“If he didn’t have this diagnosis and they could take it away, there’d be nothing I wouldn’t do for him,” Powell said, imagining the opportunity to put in an 80-hour week. “But right now, the ‘nothing I wouldn’t do’ is being there for him and doing his meds daily and being his advocate for all of his medical problems.”

Now, Powell is worried that as an adult who is technically able-bodied, she could be targeted by Medicaid cuts. She hopes to make it to the protest tomorrow

“The most important thing is that … they get real stories and they know who is truly, truly being hurt,” she said, choking back tears. “It is not just about the numbers.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Courtney Powell’s first name as Amy.

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