Euphemism Radar and the Trump Budget


February 25, 2020

The other day I read that the private rocket firm SpaceX uses the term “rapid unscheduled disassembly” when one of their rockets blows up. A little googling, which none of us has time to do but, hey, found that the term has been around in engineering circles for at least 50 years. I couldn’t help but admire the powers of concealment in the phrase.

So when I turned my attention to President Trump’s new budget, my Euphemism Radar was engaged. And there’s a lot. The Trump Administration wants to do a lot of modernizing, modifying, reallocating, reforming, and improving program or payment integrity. A common theme emerges: they’re all about cutting.

A prominent example: the Trump budget would “modernize” Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to the tune of $193 billion in cuts over ten years. The vast majority of that comes from the Medicaid “community engagement requirement” – happy-speak for $152.4 billion in cuts from requiring frequent documentation of work. Where it’s been tried, the results have been disastrous. In Arkansas, 18,000 Medicaid beneficiaries were rapidly dropped, many because they could not manage the cumbersome monthly reporting requirements. So far, federal district and appeals courts have invalidated the work requirements plans in Arkansas. The courts have ruled against work requirements because they violate Medicaid law, which says if the federal government is to waive existing Medicaid rules, it must only do so if the new plans will further the law’s purpose of providing Medicaid coverage to people in need. Still, while some states have dropped their work reporting plans, the Trump Administration has approved such requests to waive Medicaid law in a number of other states. “Community engagement” and even “work requirements” may sound good, but research evidence is ample that low-income people, who have limited online access or money for transportation, will have a hard time complying with monthly reporting requirements, and so will lose Medicaid coverage. Low literacy, frequent moves (so they don’t even see the notices about what they have to do), busy work schedules or disabilities (theirs or their children’s or other relatives) also keep people from managing the red tape. The Trump Administration does not provide additional job training to help people comply; in fact, Department of Labor training programs are flat-funded, cut, or eliminated outright. It isn’t proposing to help with transit costs, and, although the Trump budget proposes an increase in child care, there is enormous competition for those funds, since at the moment five out of six eligible children do not get child care subsidies.

People who receive SNAP (formerly food stamps) would have similar “reforms” inflicted upon them. Unless a court stops them (a lawsuit has been filed), the Trump Administration will on April 1 start limiting SNAP benefits to only three months every three years for adults without dependents who cannot show 20 hours of work per week. The budget would broaden work requirements to all adults who are not exempt (because of disability or caring for a child under age 6). The budget estimates the work requirements will cut SNAP spending by $36.6 billion over ten years. While on paper USDA talks about good cause exemptions if child care is not available, for example, painful reality means that people will not satisfy the documentation requirements to show they have good cause. Just like the Arkansas Medicaid experience, and decades of other experience in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the more bureaucratic barriers you erect, the fewer people will get the help they really need.

Catherine Rampell, a Washington Post columnist, has a very good term for this: she calls it “weaponized bureaucracy.” That’s the opposite of a euphemism – it’s language that clearly illuminates what’s really going on.

But returning to language meant to obscure, not illuminate, the Trump budget includes this listing: “Reform Federal disability programs and Improve Payment Integrity,” and under that includes “promote greater labor force participation,” which is estimated to cut $43 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income over ten years. The Administration has already put out a proposed rule to make these cuts, so we know they would subject people with disabilities to more frequent disability reviews, intended to show that their conditions have improved enough so that they should be able to get jobs. The evidence is grimly clear that most cannot work, and such activities are likely, once again, to prevent people in great need from maintaining assistance. In the Reagan years, something similar was tried, resulting in many thousands of people with serious disabilities losing their lifeline of income assistance. The outcry was loud, and the Reagan Administration was forced to discontinue its plan. CHN was one of tens of thousands of people or groups submitting opposing comments to the Trump Administration; if you want more of how this revived attempt to weaponize bureaucracy would hurt people, click here. (And break the Trump promise of no cuts to Social Security, too.)

Some school districts in high poverty areas have opted to provide free school meals to all students without checking each child’s eligibility. That has saved administrative costs and avoids lunchroom “shaming,” the awful humiliation if children do not have the money for their lunch or breakfast. The Trump Administration wants to make it harder for poor school districts to make meals free; they call it “improving program integrity” and it will cut $1.7 billion from school meals. A few non-poor families will have to pay for their meals, but many more struggling families will not get help they need.

There are too many more examples to detail here, but we can’t omit “Harvest Boxes” – the Trump Administration’s repeated effort to reduce the monthly SNAP allotment and replace some of it with food packages. There has long been bipartisan support for providing nutrition assistance via EBT cards that people can use in stores or farmers’ markets. This would be a giant step backward, eliminating choice for consumers and adding problems of pick-up for people with limited means of transportation. The budget summaries hopefully describe fresh food options localities may arrange, but, especially since this is supposed to save more than $120 billion over ten years, it is likely to make fresh produce or meat even less affordable and canned/boxed items far more likely. The “Harvest Box” sounds nice, but fortunately Congress has seen it for what it is – less access to food that meets a family’s needs.

The Trump FY 2021 budget proposal deserves a rapid planned disassembly, and that’s what Congress is likely to provide over the next few months. But since the Trump Administration is attempting to make many of these cuts on its own even if Congress objects, we have to keep cutting through the euphemisms to show the harm.