WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that ostensibly cracks down on loafing among welfare recipients.
“Our country still struggles from nearly record high welfare enrollments,” White House adviser Andrew Bremberg told reporters Tuesday evening. “Part of President Trump’s effort to create a booming American economy includes moving Americans from welfare to work.”
There is no federal program actually called “welfare,” a catchall term for safety net social services that is loaded with racial meaning ― polling suggests most Americans incorrectly believe welfare is something that mostly benefits African-Americans.
The order itself will have no immediate effect on any program or benefit. Like many other executive orders before, all it does is direct agencies to review their policies and eventually make suggestions.
“It’s a messaging statement,” Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said in an interview. “It’s a bow tying together all the things they’re doing in different agencies.”
Prior to Trump’s order, the federal agencies in charge of the biggest social welfare programs had already taken steps toward reducing enrollment. The Department of Health and Human Services said this year it will allow states to impose “work requirements” on Medicaid recipients. The Department of Agriculture is reviewing options for stricter enforcement of work requirements that already exist under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly known as food stamps.
The trouble is agencies don’t have a ton of leeway to make changes that aren’t explicitly allowed by the laws creating or governing those programs. That’s why Medicaid work requirements are facing a tough legal challenge. It’s also why Trump’s order on Tuesday tells agencies to evaluate their ability to promote work requirements “to the extent permitted by law.”
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss the order as entirely inconsequential, said Donna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Even though it doesn’t specifically say ‘change law’ it does provide a framework that will set a tone and frame for what comes afterwards,” Pavetti said.
Pavetti noted that Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it” did not itself end welfare. It did, however, propel Clinton to the White House and set the stage for 1996 legislation that actually did decimate the federal government’s only program that provided direct cash assistance to poor people. That program’s successor, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, serves a fraction of the eligible population that its predecessor reached.
It will still be up to Congress to make major changes to Medicaid or food stamps. Republicans missed their chance to reform Medicaid last year with the failure of their health care legislation. The party’s conservative wing wants to rewrite the SNAP statute this year with harsher eligibility rules, though Democrats will have significant say over the legislation because of their filibuster power in the U.S. Senate.
One thing Trump’s order does do immediately is create newspaper headlines about Trump harshing on “welfare,” which could serve as grist for the white nationalists among Trump’s core supporters. Fifty-nine percent of Americans said they think most welfare recipients are African American, according to a HuffPost / YouGov poll conducted in February.
Trump’s order describes welfare as any program that provides income support based on need but doesn’t list programs that might meet the definition. Medicaid and food stamps are two of the biggest federal programs for which Americans qualify for by having low incomes. The largest demographic group that receives benefits from either program is white people.