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Trump administration eyes plan to reduce poverty by redefining it

Updated

There are official metrics the government utilizes to determine eligibility for social-insurance programs. So, for example, for low-income Americans to get food stamps, they have to fall within the poverty threshold.

With this in mind, the Trump administration reportedly hopes to reduce poverty in the United States, not by making a material difference in struggling families’ finances, but by tinkering with the threshold for what counts as poverty.

As the Washington Post’s Helaine Olen explained in a piece last night:

The Trump administration wants to lower the poverty rate in the United States. But there’s a catch: If the plan under discussion is enacted, it would cut the number of people living in poverty not by giving them a wage increase, but by defining them out of it.

“Instead of actually doing anything to cut poverty in America, Trump is trying to fudge the numbers to artificially ‘reduce’ the U.S. poverty rate,” said Rebecca Vallas, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. “It’s mathematical gaslighting.”

As a practical matter, the ideas under consideration are similar to Republican proposals to cut Social Security: if officials change the way in which inflation adjustments are made, fewer would have access to benefits.

None of this is necessary or legally required, of course. Team Trump simply decided to consider changes that would have dramatic effects on those who rely on the social-insurance programs.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a related analysis yesterday:

If the poverty line is altered in this fashion, fewer individuals and families will qualify over time for various forms of assistance, including many who work hard but are paid low wages. That’s because using a lower measure of inflation like the chained CPI to adjust the poverty line each year would make the eligibility thresholds for various programs that serve people in need lower and lower over time, compared with what the thresholds otherwise would be.

This, in turn, would lower the income eligibility limits for programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid, which are tied to the federal poverty line. It also would reduce the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) premium tax credits — and thereby increase the out-of-pocket premium charges faced by millions of people who purchase health insurance through the ACA marketplaces.

The change isn’t yet official or final, though the Office of Management and Budget – which I think is still technically led by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney – formally proposed a regulatory change this week.

In doing so, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities added, the administration “presented no research on how low-income families’ costs for basic necessities has changed over time, the adequacy of the poverty line itself as compared to the cost of basic necessities, or the implications of changing the poverty line for individuals’ and families’ access to needed assistance.”

A cynic might wonder if the administration is just clumsily pursuing such a change to scratch an ideological itch.