Last week, the Trump administration published its plan to reorganize the federal government. The big takeaway: It’s possible to commit genocide by bureaucracy.
That sounds totally irrational, to the point you might either stop reading right here or continue purely for the entertainment of laughing at an insane leftist, but I’ll walk you through it. We’ve feared this stuff from the GOP for a while, in the form of the cuts to the safety net now in the works, which they “need” to make because their gifts to the wealthy and defense spending are blowing up the deficit. But this approach, from the executive side, is much different and more insidious. And if you’re still with me, here’s the weird part: It all comes down to what happens to the U.S. Census Bureau.
We know the Census counts Americans every ten years. Those numbers are used to calculate critical political thresholds, such as the number of electoral votes a state has and the number of representatives a state sends to Congress. The Census also collects and analyzes a ton of other data on Americans, some of the most important being economic, such as how many Americans live in poverty. In turn the government uses those numbers to determine how many people are eligible for federal assistance programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicare, CHIP, and how much people save on marketplace health insurance.
In other words, the livelihood and longevity of the poorest among us hangs on Census data.
The federal reorganization plan collapses the Census Bureau with two other agencies—the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—under the Commerce Department. Here’s the rationale the administration provides for this:
Census and BLS separately collect data on, and maintain different lists of business establishments to support their statistical activities. Such duplication creates unnecessary burden on respondents, which only impedes the timely production and analysis of vital U.S. data that the public rely on to make everyday household, business, and policy decisions.
Beyond that point—which is valid, if small—we might actually want to duplicate data. If we have two sets of data that register significantly different conclusions, it would trigger a second analysis or collection. One set of data, of course, wouldn’t have that kind of built-in double-check. The proposal phrases it like so: ”[The reorganization] provides the best opportunity to preserve the quality and integrity of these products while also creating the greatest opportunity to improve the efficiency of the agencies.” It adds that the “consolidation of these agencies could allow for combining these surveys into a single data collection.”
In other words, consolidation makes it easier for the Commerce Department to control and restructure collection and analysis. The Trump administration really, really wants to control this data. It also makes it easier for the people Trump appointed to dismantle their agencies to accomplish that goal. In fact, they can double or triple their effectiveness.
So, who would be the Trump appointee trusted with this critical data? The proposal would leave it to the Commerce Department’s Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, currently Karen Dunn Kelley, who before assuming her current position was senior managing director of a trillion-dollar investment fund called Invesco, where she helped run, among other things, a series of trusts called Invesco Cayman Commodity Funds numbers one through seven. In 2006, Invesco acquired Wilbur Ross’s WL Ross fund, which is now embroiled along with its namesake in a major scandal. Wilbur Ross is the Secretary of the Department of Commerce, Karen Dunn Kelley’s boss.
In other words, your standard Trump administration corruption. But why is it life-threatening in this case?
The Census determines how many Americans live in poverty. So let’s set the stage with some stats.
In 2016, the Census Bureau found that about 40 million Americans lived in poverty, which comes out to an official poverty rate of 12.7 percent. During the last two years of the Obama administration, that rate fell 2.1 percentage points, from 14.8 percent to 12.7 percent, which put the poverty rate at the end of the Obama administration almost exactly where it was in 2007, before he took office—which we need to remember was the year before the 2008 recession. So Obama did okay, but the poverty rate fluctuates in apparently regular cycles anywhere between 11 and 15 percent, and the stats say we’re due for a rise.
Trump’s policies, however, might exacerbate that projected cyclical rise. Healthcare, which Trump has repeatedly tried to sabotage, will likely be the biggest factor. Most recently that includes the DOJ’s decision to declare the individual mandate unconstitutional and refuse to defend pre-existing conditions.
These changes will in all likelihood put healthcare out of reach for the poorest Americans. About 16.3 percent of Americans living in poverty are uninsured. Compare that to the 4.6 percent of households living above 400 percent of the poverty threshold that don’t have coverage. Trump’s policies will also disproportionately impact minority populations. Overall, whites comprise the largest number of Americans in poverty, but at 8.8 percent they have the lowest poverty rate. Blacks have the highest poverty rate (22%), and below that are Hispanics (19.4%) and Asians (10%). About 26 percent of single women live at or below the poverty line.
And what a coincidence: Of those minority demographics, none, including single women, went majority Trump.
Luckily, the poor still have safety net programs, such as SNAP and Medicare. Right?
Well, maybe not. Trump’s reorganization of the Census Bureau means the administration would have more control over how the government determines poverty statistics. For instance, the UN just published a report that said 18.5 million Americans live in “extreme poverty.” This is defined as living at 50% under the poverty line. For a family of four, extreme poverty is a little over one thousand dollars a month. For an individual, it’s about five hundred a month.
The Trump administration rejected the UN study and said the real number was 250,000. That’s a slight downward revision of about 18.25 million people, or 99%.
How did the administration come up with that number? They went by a different measurement method, the same used by conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, which found that only 0.08 percent of American households (or about 250,000 people) are in “deep poverty,” which Heritage arbitrarily defines as “spending power” of less than $4 a day. Four bucks a day is about $1,500 of spending power each year, which must go towards food, healthcare, rent, etc. The Heritage method also accounts for government assistance programs such as Medicaid, SNAP, and housing, which is messed up for about a dozen reasons, one of the grossest best articulated by another conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which said the UN poverty measure was wrong because “it doesn’t count the enormous assistance we provide low-income Americans.”
That’s right: An admission that the assistance programs the GOP wants to eliminate are working incredibly well, so cutting them will plunge more Americans into poverty.
But maybe the UN is wrong because it sucks and hates America. Well, my fine delusional friend, here’s the troubling thing: In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the same number of Americans living in “extreme poverty” (50% under the poverty line) as the UN did—18.5 million.
On top of that, to account for conservative objections that the official poverty rate didn’t include government programs, the Census Bureau created a “supplemental” poverty rate that included those benefits. It didn’t make much difference: In 2016, 15.7 million Americans lived 50 percent below the supplemental poverty rate. What’s more, in 2016 the supplemental poverty measure registered even more Americans in poverty than the official measure: 14 percent to 12.7 percent.
In other words, the Trump administration disagrees with its own official statistics (by 18.25 million people) because it doesn’t approve of the methods the U.S. government uses to get those statistics. How can you say these people don’t hate the poor?
The troubling part, though, is that now they have the power to change the methods.
In order to grasp how much is at stake here in human terms, let’s look at SNAP.
One thing Trump’s reorganization does outside the Census is to fold government assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps) into the Department of Health and Human Services, which it would rename as the Department of Health and Public Welfare. Ronald Reagan famously demonized “welfare queens,” a slur that fiscal conservatives and fiscal racists alike have since embraced in their attempt to rationalize withholding money from people in need. The administration wants to use the word in a weaponized PR campaign to smear government programs and the people who depend on them.
But most of these programs, such as SNAP, aren’t “welfare” programs, which are direct payment programs for particularly needy Americans. Programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, and CHIP provide benefits, not cash.
In 2016, about 44.2 million Americans received SNAP benefits, a drop of five percent from the year before. SNAP gave these 44 million people about $66.5 billion (with a B) in benefits, which is down about eight billion from 2012. That sounds like a lot of money, but the average monthly benefit for 2016 was only $125.40 per person. To qualify for SNAP assistance, you must live at or slightly above the poverty line. For Medicaid, the government sets a minimum federal eligibility standard, which in 2017 was 138% of the poverty line. (Individual states can expand coverage past this level, however.) About 72 million Americans benefit from Medicaid and CHIP health coverage.
The placement of the poverty line, then, means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. We can now see how devastating the Trump administration might be for America’s poor: The administration’s estimate of Americans in “extreme poverty” is one percent of the 18.5 million Americans the Census Bureau currently estimates are in extreme poverty. That’s how insanely extreme this administration is.
But maybe we need to be extreme, you might say. The system is clearly broken: People are getting something for nothing, and these programs are rife with fraud.
Wrong on both counts.
First, remember the average SNAP recipient gets $125 a month. That’s not a lot. But what about fraud? The USDA, which currently handles SNAP, reported $592.7 million dollars of food stamp fraud in 2016. (See Table 46 in that linked report.) That number comes from fraud investigations, which in 2016 totaled 963,965, an increase of more than 30 percent from 2012. (Weirdly, about half those investigations were in the state of New York.) But when you do the math and compare those stats to program totals, SNAP fraud in 2016 accounted for only 0.9% of the total amount given out. So that’s one cent on the dollar, for a massive program. In 1993, food stamp fraud rates were four cents on the dollar.
But that seemingly large investigation increase hides another truth: Those 963,965 investigations yielded a total of only 55,930 disqualifications. Plug that into the total numbers, and you find that only 1.2 people out of every one thousand SNAP recipients got disqualified for fraud.
So, first: People don’t get much in benefits, but almost all of them desperately need what they get. Second: People are not defrauding the system. These are people the Trump administration literally proposed sending government-selected food boxes in lieu of SNAP, all to save a little money because their own financial policies designed to benefit the wealthy are blowing up the deficit. Which they’re going to make up for by doing what the GOP has wanted to do all along, and that’s to cut the safety net. They’re also unsurprisingly lying about it.
But we’re talking about people in need, people sinking as inequality rises, as basic healthcare slips out of reach, as they lose access to food.
You might be one of these people. Thirteen percent chance.
If the Trump administration gets what it wants, these policies will lead to miserable lives and early deaths for untold numbers of poor Americans, and disproportionately minorities. It’s possible to commit genocide via income, via capitalism, via an obscure act of bureaucracy: Just change a few definitions, and you change the whole machine.
But it’s not imminent, and not a certainty. Both Democrats and Republicans would object to many of the other insane ideas in this proposal, of which you can find a quick summary here. And thanks to Congressional oversight, Trump can’t directly shut down any of these federal agencies by executive order. He can, however, appoint directors who will help him render them useless, effectively shutting them down. He can also veto any bill that provides funding to these agencies, and request the funding be lowered or eliminated.
But take heart: The Census Bureau reorganization wouldn’t happen until late 2020, after the 2020 Census is completed. So if you needed another reason to get everyone you know out to vote in November, here are tens of millions of them.