The Republican War on the Poor and Vulnerable

The children crying out for their parents in migrant detention camps may well define this moment of the Trump era, but families fleeing extreme violence and poverty in Central America are not the only ones in the administration’s crosshairs. The suffering on the Southern US border is just one example of how the politics dominating Washington under President Trump can cause real people to feel real pain.

Even as Trump was forced to back down on its family separation policy that created a crisis on the border, the immigration crackdown continues, leaving “fear and heartbreak” in its wake. Meanwhile, the White House announced plans to consolidate federal social safety net programs under one federal agency, a move critics say reflects the ultimate goal of doing away with the safety net altogether. Even as conservative lawmakers bickered over immigration, Republicans in Congress advanced legislation on Thursday that would eliminate or reduce food assistance for an estimated 2 million people.

All of this follows moves by the White House to cut immigrant families off from social services and allow states to drastically reduce their Medicaid rolls, eliminating health coverage for millions of people. These initiatives have one thing in common: They target and punish some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“It’s an onslaught,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy director at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a group that focuses on policies impacting low-income people.

Consider Irma, a domestic worker who came to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, she found herself working for $160 a week with little time for rest, not to mention a day off work. Before connecting with advocates for domestic workers who helped her escape a life “in the shadows,” she was essentially a live-in servant for a household in Texas, where she was kept “locked up” and unable to report labor abuse.

“I would only see the sunlight when I took the garbage out or picked up the newspaper,” Irma told reporters this week.

Latina domestic workers like Irma work long hours and juggle responsibilities as cooks, cleaners, nannies and caretakers for the elderly. As baby boomers age, demand for the labor provided by domestic workers is growing rapidly. They work hard for very little pay and face extreme hardships, particularly in the border region of Texas, where Irma has worked for years.

In the first door-to-door survey of its kind, advocates found that more than a third of domestic workers in the border region of Texas reported that someone went hungry in their household over the past year, and more than half say they could not afford medical care for a family member in need. Irregular pay and wage theft are common, even among those who are citizens and legal residents. As caretakers for the very young and very old, they must navigate economic relationships that are both “intimate and cruel,” according to a report released this week by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Trump’s immigration crackdown is trapping large numbers of domestic workers and their family members in a region surrounded by Border Patrol checkpoints because they have varying legal statuses. To survive, Latina domestic workers must continue working long hours with little recourse for labor abuse. In fact, advocates for domestic workers say tough border enforcement is the main cause of the accumulation of the undocumented workers Trump routinely uses as a political punching bag, because seasonal laborers who would rather return home fear crossing back over the border again in the future.

“People end up getting funneled into El Paso and almost forced to stay here, and a lot of people end up staying and living here, and all of the workers are victims of exploitation,” said Rosa San Luis, a community organizer with a group called Fuerza del Valle in the Rio Grande Valley. “At first, they just think they are victims of wage theft, then we realize they are all victims of exploitation and various forms of abuse.”

This could be chalked up as an unfortunate and unintended consequence of Trump’s efforts to please his base with hardline immigration policies, but administration officials have routinely stated that policies making life harder for immigrant families is part of a broader strategy to “deter” asylum seekers.

“Right now, family separation is on everyone’s mind, and it is horrific and appalling — I literally don’t have the words to describe how horrible it is,” Lower-Basch said. “… But I do think the notion that all of this is really part of an overall strategy for making life as miserable as possible for people who are immigrants is accurate.”

While the tears of migrant children have the nation focused on immigration, the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party is quietly pursuing policies that could make life harder for millions of families, regardless of immigration status. Under Trump’s leadership, “welfare to work” reforms have become an obsession among conservatives, who are now advancing policies designed to push millions of low-income people out of programs that provide health coverage and nutrition assistance by requiring participants to prove that they work a certain number of hours per month.

“The overwhelming majority of people [in public assistance programs] who can work are working, but even people who are working are going get kicked off because of these requirements,” Lower-Basch said.

Lynne Haney is a professor of sociology at New York University who has spent years studying a population that is often ignored, if not misunderstood and ridiculed, by policy makers and the general public: low-income fathers who owe child support debt. She has interviewed more than a hundred such men and observed about 1,200 child support cases. Haney says only about 10 percent reflect the stereotype that “child support” brings to mind — a father who refuses to take responsibility for his children. In reality, most care about their families but live in a constant state of financial instability, where one wrong move can set them back years.

“We know a whole lot about poor women and their vulnerabilities, for decades and decades of research has debunked a lot of myths about them,” Haney said. “But we haven’t had a similar rethinking of poor men.”

Like the “welfare queens” of the past, such noncustodial parents have become the latest targets of conservatives seeking to shrink the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. On Thursday, House Republicans passed their version of the Farm Bill, which includes a number of provisions that analysts estimate would eliminate or reduce SNAP benefits for 2 million people and about 1 million families. SNAP already has strict time limits for benefits and work requirements for many participants, but conservatives are seeking new restrictions as they search for ways to pay for their tax cuts for the rich.

One provision in the House Farm Bill would require parents or guardians who do not live with their child’s other parent to cooperate with child support agencies, a policy proponents say would encourage fathers to find work and help their families reduce dependence on government programs. Critics say it would make it harder for struggling parents to provide food for their kids, all while racking up $3.5 billion in new administrative costs over 10 years, based on analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. States have always had this option, but dozens have decided against it after determining it would create costly bureaucracy without resulting in a notable increase in child support payments.

To understand how this works, we must consider some little-known facts about the decades-old child support system. A 2007 study found that 70 percent of child support is owed by parents who make less than $10,000 a year and cannot afford to make regular payments. Haney said many of these parents are currently or formerly incarcerated men who face significant barriers to employment. States charge up to 12 percent interest on child support debt — and also charge noncustodial parents for public assistance their children receive. Overall, 30 percent of child support debt is owed to the state, not to children and family members, according to Haney. In states with robust public assistance programs like California, that number is as high as 75 percent.

Haney said debtors with higher incomes often work low-wage jobs with inconsistent hours, sometimes two or three at a time in order to make payments, reducing the amount of time they can spend with their children. The economy may be improving, but research shows that wages for lower-income workers remain stagnant.

“We have a wage depression where they simply can’t make up that money, so it just spirals into debt and accumulates and accumulates on the books,” Haney said, adding that research has shown that once child support debt reaches a certain threshold, fathers give up and stop paying. Plus, the state can garnish up to 65 percent of wages to pay off debt. “When things don’t add up, fathers drop out of formal employment…. We don’t have to encourage that, we want them to get formal employment.”

Haney said that 80 percent of families enrolled in SNAP already have child support orders. The remaining 20 percent most likely negotiate child support with informal arrangements. Tying SNAP benefits into the child support system would subject parents to all the enforcement mechanisms that come with it. For example, some states will revoke driving licenses when parents fall behind on payments, making it difficult to find and keep work. Others throw noncustodial parents in jail when debt adds up. Of course, parents who are unable to make child support payments would lose their SNAP benefits, making it harder to buy lunch for their kids.

“It’s shortsighted, it creates multiple intersecting vulnerabilities,” Haney said. ” … The systems start working off of each other, and that’s when things really get destructive.”

The first attempt by House Republicans to pass the Farm Bill failed after hardline conservatives held it hostage over unrelated immigration legislation. With Republicans at war with each other over how to overhaul the immigration system, the Farm Bill could once again become a bargaining chip. The House Farm Bill is also expected to collide with the Senate version, which does not have the same provisions aimed at SNAP. In fact, advocates say some provisions in the Senate version would bolster the program that provides food to 42 million people, including millions of children.

As fall deadlines approach for lawmakers, expect to hear a lot more about “amnesty” and “welfare reform.” These may be talking points for politicians, but the polices that follow have real-world consequences for people who are already struggling.