The Trump administration announced new standards this week that will block legal immigrants from obtaining green cards if the government thinks they might wind up poor.
The new regulation is the centerpiece of both President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda and his anti-welfare agenda. It shows how the two complement each other — and how Trumpism is a political strategy that panders to white Americans.
Ken Cuccinelli, Trump’s acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, all but said Tuesday that the new rule is designed to cut down on the immigration of brown people. He suggested that a famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to welcome immigrants does not apply to people from Latin America.
“That poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class,” Cuccinelli said on CNN.
The new version of the so-called “public charge” rule for those seeking legal permanent residency gives bureaucrats more power to block applicants who they suspect might burden the government, such as by enrolling in Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The rule followed a series of proposed cuts to those programs, as well as a symbolic executive order.
The bulk of the cuts are stricter “work requirements” that can halt benefits for childless adults who don’t document time spent in qualified work or work-related activities. The administration is also narrowing eligibility rules for food benefits, in part because a rich guy in Minnesota signed up for assistance just to make a point that some people don’t deserve it.
While the safety net proposals are ostensibly race-neutral, American politics are not. White Americans’ attitudes toward welfare have long been shaped by racism, and bashing those programs can appeal to white voters.
“The modern right is using racism to sell rule by the rich,” said Ian Haney López, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law who has written extensively on racism in politics. ”The way they do that is by linking government help to regular Americans with the idea these are handouts to undeserving or dangerous people of color.”
Republicans in Congress insist that cuts to social programs merely reflect free-market principles and a desire to promote self-sufficiency. Trump may have thrown that argument out the window, however, by creating a giant new welfare program for farmers.
While the administration wants new asset and income limits for food benefits, the biggest, most profitable farms are essentially exempt from income limits for the president’s trade bailout program. That program paid farmers $12 billion last year and another $16 billion this year ― amounts that almost double the regular farm subsidies the U.S. Department of Agriculture doles out annually.
Farmers are eligible if they’ve been unable to sell their crops to China thanks to tariffs set up in retaliation for Trump’s own tariffs on Chinese imports. A farmer is supposed to be ineligible if his annual income exceeds $900,000 ― unless 75% of that income comes from farming. Most small farming households earn most of their income from jobs away from the farm. So the 75% exemption primarily benefits big commercial operations.
“It creates an enormous loophole for the 50,000 largest farms that derive most of their income from farming,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, which has long supported stricter income limits for agriculture subsidies in general.
Guess which demographic group benefits the most.
White Americans’ attitudes toward welfare have long been shaped by racism.
“Not only did almost all of the funds go to white operators, but an overwhelming share of the funds appear to have gone to upper-middle class and wealthy families,” notes a July analysis by Farm Bill Enterprise, a consortium of agriculture policy experts from law schools around the country. More than 99% of the bailout funds went to white farmers. (More than 95% of farmers are white to begin with, thanks in part to 20th-century federal policies that drove Black farmers off their land.)
The president bragged on Twitter last month that farmers are starting to do great again. “The 16 Billion Dollar China ‘replacement’ money didn’t exactly hurt!” he tweeted.
A plurality of both Medicaid and SNAP beneficiaries are white, meaning more white Americans receive benefits than any other demographic, but many Americans think that the programs mostly benefit Black people.
That’s probably because political rhetoric about social programs has often included racially coded terms. Ronald Reagan pioneered the strategy in the 1970s and ’80s, as journalist Josh Levin notes in his just-published book “The Queen.” At a 1980 presidential campaign speech in Mississippi, for instance, Reagan complained about welfare cheats and pivoted to championing “states’ rights,” one of the less subtle ways a candidate could flatter white voters in the South.
In studies going back decades, academics have probed the link between racial resentment and attitudes toward welfare. One study last year, by Rachel Wetts of Brown University and Robb Willer of Stanford, found that white Americans were more likely to oppose social programs if they were shown demographic data suggesting white people could lose their majority status in the future.
While welfare griping has mainly been a Republican hobby, Bill Clinton won the presidency by bashing welfare in the 1990s, and Democratic voters may still be receptive to that sort of rhetoric. A paper Wetts and Willer published this month suggests that white liberals are more likely than other groups to have negative views of welfare after reading coded language.
The researchers asked different groups of survey participants ― all of them white ― to share their views on welfare after reading a brief political statement. Some read a statement about global warming that had no racial content; some read an overtly racist rant against food stamps; and others read an excerpt of a Reagan speech that mentioned “inner cities,” absent fathers and “a permanent culture of poverty.” (The statements were presented without attribution.)
The researchers had previously assessed the degree to which their respondents harbored racial resentment ― e.g., how much they agreed with statements like “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” And it turned out that respondents who tended to agree with such statements, but who nevertheless identified as liberal, seemed most receptive to the Reagan rhetoric.
“These implicit appeals were surprisingly effective at getting racially resentful white liberals to turn against welfare policy,” Wetts, lead author of the study, told HuffPost.
Back in Reagan’s day, they were called Reagan Democrats. And now they could be crucial to Trump’s quest for a second term. As Wetts put it, “These are the Obama-Trump swing voters.”
Language has been amended to note Clinton’s attacks on welfare.