Trump change would define away poverty

A homeless camp in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
A homeless camp in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

President Trump signed a sweeping tax cut bill in late 2017. He said it would pay for itself. That turned out to be untrue. The deficit has notably swollen. He also said “the rich will not be gaining at all with this plan” since “our framework ensures that the benefits go to the middle class, not the highest earners.”

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center reported, however, that the biggest benefits go to the top 1 percent — who are projected to receive an average tax break of $62,000 on their 2018 returns. Admittedly, no one was actually surprised. In fact, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month indicated that only 17 percent of Americans believed their taxes have been cut. More heartening, Bloomberg News reported that U.S. Banks saved $21 billion in taxes — as their effective rate fell from 28 to 19 percent. The swamp thrives. And surely no living human still believes Donald Trump is out to help the little guy.

To make the point, Trump’s White House Office of Management and Budget made a proposal last week to change the way the government calculates the federal poverty level threshold. (Last year, $25,900 for a family of four.) Trump thinks the current formula includes an inflation index that allows increases too readily. His folks suggest a “chained CPI” that would rise at a notably slower rate.

Sharon Parrott, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, responded: “The (change) would, over time, cut or take away entirely food assistance, health care and other forms of (basic aid) from millions who struggle to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads and see a doctor when they need to.” Large numbers of low-income Americans would simply be redefined out of hardship.

Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress was more blunt. “Instead of actually doing anything to cut poverty in America,” she said, “Trump is trying to fudge the numbers to artificially reduce the poverty rate — it’s mathematical gaslighting.” On the other hand, maybe he’s just sticking to what he’s good at.

Last year, Phillip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, toured the U.S. to determine whether poverty here undermines human liberty. He concluded that we’ve become ‘the most unequal society in the world” — in ways that are “shockingly at odds with (our) immense wealth and founding commitment to human rights.”

America is the richest nation, he said, but ranks 35th of the 37 Organization for Economic Development (OECD) countries in poverty rate. It is “the clear and constant outlier in child poverty, shocking numbers of its children are poor.” We have, by far, the highest child poverty rate — about a quarter of our kids are poor compared to 14 percent in the other 36 OECD nations.

We have the highest GINI (economic inequality) index. Of the 10 wealthiest countries, the U.S. does the least to alleviate poverty. We have the weakest social safety net and the worst economic mobility. Poor people here get tougher treatment than in any comparable nation.

Thomas Piketty, the world’s leading economic polarization scholar, has written that inequality in the U.S. is “probably higher than in any other society, at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Trump has decided it’s not bad enough.

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina. He was director of the UNC Poverty Center until it was closed by the UNC Board of Governors in 2015.