Over the past few decades, “welfare” has become a dirty word in America.
Ronald Reagan popularized the racist dog whistle of “welfare queens.” Bill Clinton railed for “welfare reform.” Both employed this rhetoric to perpetuate the myth that lazy poor people—mainly black, single mothers—were bilking the federal government to justify depriving them of benefits. It still works: A recent study found racial resentment fueled most white American’s attitudes toward social safety nets. Others found that public support drops for programs labeled as “welfare” as opposed to when they are labeled as “assistance to the poor.”
Donald Trump has already capitalized on the hard work of his predecessors, calling for “welfare reform” himself, which again has meant cutting benefits and imposing work requirements on a whole slew of programs, including, for the first time in history, Medicaid.
But on Wednesday Politico reported that his administration is going even further and looking into consolidating anti-poverty programs under the Department of Health and Human Services and potentially renaming the agency, slapping the word “welfare” back in its title.
The department was actually named the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare until 1980, when DOE became its own department and Jimmy Carter’s administration chose to drop the word “welfare” from the title. Now the Trump administration wants to literally reorganize the federal government to take advantage of this stigmatized word, essentially making one big easy target for austerity.
Currently, HHS’ purview includes programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. According to Politico, the report that the Office of Management and Budget plans to release in the coming weeks would recommend moving the $70 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) from the Agriculture Department to the (possibly) renamed HHS.
Politico notes that these changes are unlikely to happen since they require Congressional approval. But the calculus here could not be more clear—the more government programs that are rebranded as “welfare” regardless of their function or intent, the easier it will be to cut them.
This could include not only programs like SNAP that the administration wants newly reshuffled to HHS, but also those that already fall under the department, such as Medicare, a near-universal health care benefit, and Title X grants, which distribute millions in funding for reproductive health clinics across the country.
It’s a catch-all strategy to obscure the actual intent or effect of any individual program (many which save lives and keep children from going hungry) and just label them as Bad and Wasteful. And, while some have pointed out that consolidating programs could be more efficient form of governance, it’s still a bit scary to imagine a pattern where any vested interested in fighting for anti-poverty programs—and poor people in general—is removed from any agency outside of HHS.
HHS’s currently listed mission “is to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans.” But lest we forget, this is Trump, who was one reported to have expressed shock when a member of the Congressional Black Caucus reminded him that not all constituents on welfare were black. With the reorganization of HHS it looks like he’s thrilled to swap a dog whistle for a bullhorn.