Should Trump get credit for getting millions of Americans off welfare?

Improving employment opportunities and pay increases have made millions of workers ineligible for food stamps because they earn too much money. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - United States President Donald Trump likes to claim credit for the number of Americans who have stopped receiving food stamps since he entered office.

In July 2018, he said 3.5 million had fallen from the rolls; the next spring, five million had. In his State of the Union speech this month, the number had grown to seven million.

Democrats say those figures show only that Mr Trump has pushed struggling Americans off public assistance by pressing to restrict eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (Snap), Medicaid and other programmes.

For now, the evidence supports Mr Trump's contention that an improving economy is more responsible for falling food stamp rolls than attempts to limit access.

Moving forward, however, the President's initiatives are poised to deny assistance to millions of Americans who would previously have been eligible.

"The decline in poverty levels since the end of the Great Recession has been the single largest factor in recent Snap participation declines," said Ms Dottie Rosenbaum, a researcher at the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research organisation in Washington. "This shows the programme is working as designed."

In an election year, when the strength of the economy promises to be the president's main pitch to voters, how the decline in public assistance rolls is perceived may have political significance. Mr Trump and his administration are casting his economic policies as a boon to low-income Americans, while Democrats are seeking to paint him as cruel to the poor.

"Under the last administration, more than 10 million people were added to the food stamp rolls," the president said in his State of the Union address. "Under my administration, seven million Americans have come off food stamps, and 10 million people have been lifted off welfare."

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez snapped back during a House Oversight Committee hearing: "Seven million people have not been lifted off food stamps in this country. They were kicked off food stamps in this country."

Mr Trump's food-stamp claims are exaggerated. About five million fewer Americans were drawing food stamps in October than at the start of his term, not seven million, according to Ms Rosenbaum's calculations, which adjust for temporary effects like natural disasters and a reporting issue in North Carolina.

Longest economic expansion in U.S. history

Nevertheless, trends in poverty and government assistance programmes in recent years - dating to the end of President Barack Obama's tenure - suggest that the bulk of the reduction in food-stamp enrolment can be attributed to the longest economic expansion in United States history.

The share of Americans in poverty, as measured by the Census Bureau, has fallen every year since 2012, an improvement that is historically correlated with declining food-stamp participation.

Enrolment in the programme began to decline in 2014 and 2015, by about 2 per cent, and in Mr Obama's final year in office by more than 3 per cent. In Mr Trump's first three years, that trend has accelerated, from a 4.5 per cent drop in 2017 to a nearly 7 per cent drop last year.

Improving employment opportunities and pay increases have made millions of workers ineligible for food stamps because they earn too much money. Wage growth is accelerating for the lowest-paid workers in the economy, and the share of the population working or looking for work is rising.

Mr Trump has also taken steps to restrict eligibility for safety-net benefits, like allowing states to add work requirements to Medicaid and threatening to deny citizenship to legal immigrants who enrol in public assistance.

The Department of Agriculture has proposed three rules that tighten eligibility and work requirements for food stamps. One of those proposals will go into effect in April, making it more difficult for states to waive certain work requirements. The department estimates that more than 700,000 people could lose their food assistance because of the rule.

The other two rules are pending, but if all three had taken effect in 2018, more than three million people would have lost their food assistance, an analysis by the Urban Institute found.

"A commitment to the transformative power of work is why I signed an Executive Order instructing agencies to reduce dependence on welfare programmes by encouraging work," Mr Trump wrote in the introduction to the annual Economic Report of the President, to be released on Thursday (Feb 20).

Mr Trump has also taken credit for the declines in the number of Americans taking benefits from programmes his administration collectively calls "welfare", including Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Programme and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provide health coverage and cash assistance to low-income families.

Some of those declines are, like with food stamps, linked to economic improvements. Others are the result of policy changes.

Barriers to access

States may be asking low-income people to fill out a burdensome amount of paperwork or track down documents that are not easily found. Some states require low-income people to go to human services offices for in-person evaluations, which can deter people without reliable transportation or with unpredictable work hours.

"Historically, when we have looked at declines in participation in means-tested programmes, cases have declined, but it is at least in part because eligible people are no longer participating in a programme," said Ms Kathryn Larin, a director on the Government Accountability Office's education, workforce and income security team.

It is possible that eligible people are not participating because administrative changes have made it so difficult or complicated to apply that they are staying away, she said.

Some of the declines were set in motion under Mr Obama.

During the recession of 2009 and its aftermath, the Obama administration removed a time limit that prevented unemployed, non-disabled people without children from receiving food stamps for more than three months in a three-year period.

But in 2016, the three-month time limit returned. That decision is having real-world effects on the food-stamp rosters, said Mr Zachary Parolin, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University's Centre on Poverty and Social Policy.

Other declines appear to be at least partly the result of Mr Trump's policies. His efforts to deny green cards and a path to citizenship for legal immigrants who are likely to use Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers appear to be driving immigrants to stop using safety-net programmes for which they are eligible.

Declines in Medicaid enrolment reflect the Trump administration's broader attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, said Mr Indivar Dutta-Gupta, the co-executive director at Georgetown Law's Centre on Poverty and Inequality.

He pointed to the administration's approval of state-imposed work requirements for Medicaid, which in Arkansas led to more than 18,000 people losing health coverage before the federal courts intervened to halt the requirements.

Similarly, Mr Parolin said, declining participation in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, commonly known as welfare, could be attributed "to barriers to access", such as state-level decisions that have narrowed eligibility.

The decline in participation is "not primarily due to changes in the living standards of low-income families," he said.

White House officials dispute that. The Council of Economic Advisers wrote in December that its analysis found the decline in Medicaid enrollment largely reflected "income growth, not eligibility restrictions".

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