When government assistance isn’t welfare

Eighteen months into President Donald Trump’s presidency we’ve seen tariffs imposed on a slew of products and manufactured goods. Trump tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” but their harm has only begun to take its toll. Yet instead of modifying the tariffs or helping every business and consumer affected, Trump picked winners and losers and recently announced $12 billion in aid to farmers.

It might seem surprising how few Republican legislators seemed to care about the financial help just farmers would get after Trump declared a trade war, except for a few things.

One, today’s Republican office-holders are remarkably loathe to do anything to hold Trump accountable. Some may issue statements about how troubled they are, but they don’t introduce legislation to constrain him, nor pursue the sorts of checks and oversight envisioned by our Founders.

Two, despite the rhetoric about the government not picking particular groups to get help, historically the GOP has been comfortable with aiding their voters and donors.  

Ronald Reagan (AP Photo/Scott Stewart, File)

Take Ronald Reagan, often seen as a champion of free markets and opponent of welfare. Before a mid-August 1986 press conference, President Reagan stepped to the microphone and cogently expressed his outlook on government, proclaiming, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Reagan’s words portrayed the government as deserving of fear, even when – or perhaps especially when – it seeks to render assistance.

Ironically, Reagan immediately followed this sentiment by touting “a drought assistance task force and, with regard to storage problems, the availability of price-support loans for all the grain in this year’s crop.” Returning to form, Reagan contended that much of the problems facing farmers were due to government and stated that his goal was “economic independence for agriculture” and “to return farming to real farmers.” However, he acknowledged that spending on agriculture had risen rapidly under his watch and that his “administration has committed record amounts of assistance, spending more in this year alone than any previous administration spent during its entire tenure.”

Reagan reassured farmers with promises of government help, saying, “America’s farmers should know that our commitment to helping them is unshakable. And as long as I am in Washington, their concerns are going to be heard and acted upon.”

Yet in the same press conference, the president faced questions about the needs of a decidedly different population, the citizens of Chicago, a city with a sharply declining white population. Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, had charged that the president’s policies led to budget gaps that would lead to slashing the ranks of firefighters and police and would be enormously destructive. In answering a question about Washington’s claims, Reagan rejected direct federal assistance, arguing instead that block grants to states and cities, which reduced federal funding, were preferable and would reduce administrative waste. Reagan said that, if states and localities wanted, they could raise taxes.

Thus Reagan’s anti-government stance was not a consistently applied ideology. Rather, it was situational and practiced unevenly when it came to who government assisted. Chicagoans did not support Reagan but those in agricultural areas did. The former did not get help but the latter did.

Today, Trump again decided that farmers are deserving of help. Whether running big corporate farms or smaller operations, farmers aren’t stigmatized, deemed to be taking “welfare,” nor subjected to drug testing.

And when it comes to health care and taxes, there are certainly winners and losers. After Republicans (including Maine’s Sen. Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin) voted for huge tax cuts for the richest Americans, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pursued privatizing and decreasing federal spending on health care for seniors and everyday working people. Poliquin voted for repealing the Affordable Care Act and slashing those covered by Medicaid by 14 million people, via a cut of $834 billion over 10 years.

Candidate Trump said he’d close the carried interest loophole that benefits hedge fund managers, but the Trump tax didn’t do that. Since the Trump tax cut passed, stock buy-backs fattened the wallets of the wealthy, while deficits surged, typical Americans’ wages declined and inflation further hurt standards of living.

Now the Trump administration wants to use an executive order to give a $100 billion tax cut to the wealthy by reducing capital gains taxes. No doubt they won’t call that next unpopular shift in federal resources to the richest “welfare.”


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.