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The Trump administration is trying to expand work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps, known as SNAP.
The Trump administration is trying to expand work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps, known as SNAP. (Richard B. Levine / TNS)

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren keep pointing to the record level of income inequality in the United States, the highest it has been since the Census Bureau started measuring it 50 years ago, and, in reaction, defenders of the plutocracy throw penalty flags.

When Sanders and Warren talk about taxing the rich, their critics accuse them of trying to confiscate wealth from the nation’s biggest winners, the movers and shakers who make America great. Constantly reminding voters about income inequality is bad for the country, they say. It’s divisive. It’s class warfare.

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Attacks on the rich have disturbed some Democrats, too, leading billionaire Michael Bloomberg to launch his own counteroffensive by entering the campaign.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has decided to launch an offensive at the other end of the income spectrum by going after suspected sluggards on food stamps. Yes, this class warfare business works two ways, buddy. If the left can attack the rich, then the right can attack the poor.

So we have the Department of Agriculture doing something even the Senate, with its Republican majority, chose not to do last year: setting rules for food stamps that could make nearly 700,000 Americans no longer eligible to receive them.

The millionaire who serves as secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, claims this is being done as some sort of “welfare to work” sweep. He’s suggesting that nearly 700,000 of our fellow Americans have been exploiting the system by refusing to work a minimum of 20 hours a week to get generous benefits.

In fact, the single, able-bodied adults who have received meager food benefits are mostly the working poor. They have been with us for several decades now, during this prolonged period of income inequality. They are among the millions of Americans who, by the federal government’s own standards, do not earn enough money to afford a full month of nutritious food.

So we give them food stamps through the federal SNAP program, but only three months’ worth within three years.

That’s right. In most places, this is a time-limited benefit for able-bodied adults, between 18 and 49 years old, who do not have dependents.

Those who are exempted from the time restrictions live in areas where steady work is still hard to find and employment is a patchwork of part-time jobs. “That’s often the way the labor market works for people in poverty,” says Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a non-profit advocacy group.

In Maryland, Wilson says, both Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and his successor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, carefully managed the food stamp program over the last decade. The time restrictions were waived in parts of the state that were slower than others to recover from the Great Recession.

Now the Trump administration wants to eliminate such waivers altogether, everywhere, making it harder for this specific group of working poor (an estimated 30,000 adults in Maryland, out of 688,000 nationwide) to get SNAP benefits. The result is sure to be more unnecessarily hungry Americans.

A year ago, an analysis of data by Maryland Hunger Solutions revealed that large numbers of low-income people don’t even avail themselves of food stamps — in some counties, as much as 50 to 60 percent of those who qualify.

“Many eligible people are unaware of the program or believe they won’t qualify,” the analysis found. “Many eligible people do not apply for or stop renewing benefits because the $15 minimum monthly benefit is deemed insufficient given the need and the application process.”

And the stigma associated with food stamps remains a major factor.

“Some of this stigma is the result of the unfortunate but persistent narrative that some elected officials and others have perpetuated about people experiencing poverty, namely that poor people would rather receive food assistance than seek employment,” the report said. “This ignores the reality that the majority of SNAP recipients who are able to work, do work. In Maryland, 81 percent of SNAP families had at least one working member in 2016.”

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My take-away from this is what it has been since the days of Ronald Reagan and his “welfare queen” anecdotes: We have an expectation of people at the lower rungs of the income scale that we do not have for the millionaires and billionaires and corporations at the very high end.

If you’re middle class or working poor and you want help in the form of a benefit — say, unemployment compensation — you’re expected to work for it. And now we have efforts by the Trump administration and conservative governors to make not only food stamps but government-provided health care conditioned on work.

Meanwhile, with few exceptions, corporations and the very wealthy get benefits of all kinds — subsidies, tax breaks — with no obligations that they return the favor.

Look at the huge tax cuts that President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress approved in 2017. The beneficiaries of this trickle-down scheme were mainly corporations and wealthy individuals.

And what was the result for the country?

According to a comprehensive study from economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, American billionaires, the nation’s 400 richest families, paid a lower average effective tax rate in 2018 than did the bottom 50 percent of households.

The tax cuts contributed to good, not great, growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more non-farm jobs were created in President Barack Obama’s last 33 months in office than in Trump’s first 33.

Most of the corporate windfalls went to buy back stock and reward shareholders.

And, worst of all, the tax cuts have led to massive budget deficits that the Republicans once decried. The current budget deficit is $984 billion, and the Treasury Department expects it to surpass $1 trillion in 2020.

But don’t worry. The new restriction on food stamps is estimated to save the federal government about $5 billion over five years — ah yes, the spoils of war on the poor.

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