Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A sweeping plan to reform the federal government could be considered an effort to undo the New Deal with a single org chart.
The Trump administration is making good on a pledge to remap the entire executive branch, announcing a sweeping plan on Thursday that would reorder federal agencies. A draft proposal that circulated widely this week would eliminate some cabinet-level agencies and consolidate others, privatize the nation’s mortgage securities market, and introduce a new federal agency with the word “welfare” in its name.
The White House’s plans are so broad—and the changes to public assistance programs so focused—that it could be considered an effort to undo the New Deal with a single org chart.
The proposal follows a presidential executive order from March 2017 authorizing Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to launch a comprehensive investigation of the executive branch and issue recommendations for reform. Implementing this plan, which would require congressional action at almost every step, is a project that could consume an entire administration. The most dramatic fix would combine the Departments of Education and Labor into a single unit.
But the Department of Education and the Workforce might not be Mulvaney’s most far-reaching tweak to the executive branch. The White House’s proposal reimagines everything from infrastructure to food stamps—sometimes in ways that threaten their viability.
Introducing the sure-to-be-popular Welfare Department
Mulvaney wants to move the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other food-aid programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services, which would be rechristened as the Department of Health and Public Welfare. Consolidating different forms of aid into one agency would make it easier for states to navigate, the government’s thinking goes.
Two departments currently administer the government’s major assistance programs, the draft document explains: USDA has SNAP and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food program, while HHS runs Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). At the state and local level, however, the entities that actually deliver these benefits tend to be single agencies. “This creates unnecessary administrative burden and potential duplication, using up resources that could be better used helping families move towards self-sufficiency,” the proposal reads. A uniform Department of Health and Public Welfare (DHPW) would streamline things.
Only this new office might as well be the Department of Has a Giant Target on Its Back. While the proposal is detailed, some of its core recommendations are built upon misleading presumptions. One is that anyone who receives TANF benefits is “categorically” enrolled in SNAP.
That’s only partly true, says Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities: The income eligibility for cash benefits is so low that everyone who meets it is also eligible for SNAP. But that doesn’t mean that there’s a food-cash-aid loophole. In 2016, only 5 percent of SNAP households received cash benefits through TANF.
”Anyone who works in the poverty space would always be interested to know, is there a way to do this better?” Dean says. “But this proposal comes in the context of an administration that has also proposed deep, radical cuts to most of the programs they would be reorganizing.”
Mulvaney’s plan would also create a Council on Public Assistance. According to the proposal, this fellowship of stakeholders from USDA, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies would have the statutory authority to “set cross-program policies including uniform work requirements” across all agencies that provide public benefits. The Council would become the government’s “welfare policy-making apparatus,” centralizing powers from all these agencies.
Such a council could be an executive workaround for Congress, which has been reluctant to follow the Trump administration’s lead on slashing spending to the bone. The White House has not yet been able to muster support in Congress for its most draconian reforms, such as work requirements and rent hikes for low-income recipients of housing aid. Under the new dispensation, the White House wouldn’t need Congress at all. The Council on Public Assistance could decide the conditions for aid by its own authority.
Why “Welfare Department” stings
President Donald Trump has shouted about “welfare” his entire public life. After he and his father were sued in 1973 by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating the Fair Housing Act, Trump defended himself by saying that his racially discriminatory policies were never intended to keep black people off his properties. He was merely trying to discriminate against “welfare cases,” he said.
Trump’s long war against welfare is consistent with the most egregious conservative attitudes about race and class. “Welfare queen” might be the single most powerful dog-whistle in American history, a way of condemning African American women (and people of color more broadly) in crude yet coded terms.
“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare,” said President Ronald Reagan in a campaign speech in 1976. “Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
(It was the Chicago Tribune that first identified Linda Taylor, a hall-of-fame scammer with a terrifying rep, as a “welfare queen,” but it was Reagan who turned her into a boogeyman.)
“Welfare” may be an old code for a generation that has moved on to “fake news” and “lock her up,” but it still resonates with Trump and other right-wingers from the Baby Boom generation. Adding “welfare” to the name of a federal agency is not an especially subtle tactic on Mulvaney’s part.
“The proposal to rename the Department of Health and Human Services the ‘Department of Health and Public Welfare’ appears calculated, at least in part, to use a term often employed to malign efforts to assist struggling families,” said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a statement.
Greenstein noted that “welfare” is most commonly understood as cash assistance for very low income families. The more sinister insinuations of profligacy and racial stereotypes aside, welfare just isn’t what HHS provides. Instead, the department provides child support enforcement, childcare assistance for working families, Head Start, and assistance for seniors and people with disabilities.
Stripping SNAP from USDA’s purview could put food aid in existential danger, Greenstein says, since farm-bill spending has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. However, the farm bill just approved by the House includes cuts that would reduce or eliminate food assistance for more than 2 million people. Mulvaney’s proposal would make cuts like this much easier to execute in the future.
Can Mulvaney deliver?
Mulvaney’s vision is broad. His restructuring would split the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into three different departments (Defense, Interior, and Transportation). The proposal mentions recapitalizing the government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the government took into conservatorship in 2008 during the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Privatizing the mortgage securities market will be an enormous undertaking, one that the mortgage industry has anticipated since the end of the Great Recession. Pulling it off will require a focused, unified effort by the White House and Congress to execute. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has already said that’s not happening in 2018.
Mulvaney’s proposal goes further. It would privatize the U.S. Postal Service. (Take that, Amazon!) It would launch a Bureau of Economic Growth under the Commerce Department and make that the new home for HUD’s $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program. Housing advocates see that move as an effort to hijack funds for purposes other than building affordable housing.
“Rather than reshuffling programs away from the experts who run them, the federal government needs to get serious” about affordable housing, said Christopher Ptomey, senior director of government relations for Habitat for Humanity International, in a statement.
A timeline in Mulvaney’s reform package shows that the next steps are still to be determined. The entry dated “Summer 2018” reads, “OMB and agencies begin a dialogue with Congress to prioritize and refine proposals to best serve the American people.” The proposal faces steep odds, if only because it comprises so many legislative efforts stacked up on top of one another.
For now, Mulvaney is starting a dialog—about race, about class, and about rewriting the U.S. government to reflect a prominent Reaganland conceit about the social safety net. That dialog begins and ends with “welfare,” and the almost mythological significance that Republicans have invested in a slur for aid programs that are both useful and necessary. Even among Trump’s base.