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Trump Wants To Limit Aid For Low-Income Americans. A Look At His Proposals

A Transportation Security Administration employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program at a food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport, on Jan. 23, 2019, in Newark, N.J. A number of new rules and actions proposed by the Trump administration could affect poor or low-income people who use government safety net programs.
Julio Cortez
A Transportation Security Administration employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program at a food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport, on Jan. 23, 2019, in Newark, N.J. A number of new rules and actions proposed by the Trump administration could affect poor or low-income people who use government safety net programs.

Updated Aug. 27, 2019, 9:55 a.m. ET

The Trump administration is moving forward with a wave of new rules and regulations that would make it more difficult for low-income Americans — especially those in families that include non-citizens — to get government aid. NPR detailed many of the proposals in June, but there have been several developments since then.

Most of the proposed changes do not require congressional action. But opponents have vowed to fight several of them in court. Democrats in Congress are also trying to prevent the administration from implementing some of the new rules by cutting off funds.

President Trump has justified his actions by saying that he wants those receiving government help to become more self-sufficient and to move into the workforce, especially with unemployment at a near-record low. He issued an executive order last year calling on all federal agencies to help reduce poverty "by promoting opportunity and economic mobility." He directed agencies to streamline existing welfare programs, strengthen work requirements and make sure that taxpayer money is spent on "those who are truly in need."

Anti-poverty advocates counter that the proposals would hurt, rather than help, poor Americans. They say it will make it more difficult for those trying to become self-sufficient by denying them food, housing and medical assistance when they need it most. Opponents also argue that some of the changes are intended to restrict legal immigration, something the administration has been unable to do through legislation.

Here's the latest on some of the main proposals:

Food aid

  • The Department of Agriculture has called for stricter enforcement of a requirement that able-bodied adults work, volunteer or get job training for at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, after three months. Currently, most states waive the requirement. The administration would make that more difficult to do. Critics estimate that 750,000 SNAP recipients would likely have their benefits cut off because they would be unable to find jobs or otherwise meet the requirements. The public comment period on the proposal ended April 10 and attracted more than 100,000 comments, overwhelmingly negative. It's unclear when a final rule will be issued.
  • The Department of Agriculture has proposed making it harder for individuals to qualify for both SNAP and other welfare assistance, a change that the agency estimates could end benefits for some 3 million people. Currently, states have the flexibility to waive asset and income limits for those who get both food stamps and benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Anti-poverty advocates argue that the proposed change would penalize working poor families by taking away their food aid just as they start earning enough to pay for other living expenses, such as child care and housing. But supporters of the proposal say states are exploiting a loophole in the law to give aid to those who would otherwise be ineligible and that wastes taxpayer funds. The public comment period ends Sept. 23.
  • Payday loans

  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed rescinding an Obama-era regulation that would require payday lenders to determine whether a borrower has the ability to repay the loan. That regulation, which the Trump administration has delayed until next year, was intended to prevent low-income borrowers from becoming saddled with ballooning debt because payday loans can carry annual interest rates of 300% or more. Consumer advocates say low-income individuals often have to take out new payday loans to pay off earlier ones. The Trump administration argues that rescinding the Obama-era rule will encourage more competition in the industry and provide more options for borrowers. The public comment period on the proposed changeclosed May 15. It is unclear when a final rule will be issued.
  • Poverty line

  • The Office of Management and Budget is weighing whether to recalculate the official poverty line using a different inflation measure, one that many economists say would paint a more accurate picture of the price increases that consumers face. But critics say the change would not reflect how inflation affects low- and moderate-income individuals and, over time, would lead to millions of people seeing their government benefits — such as SNAP, Medicaid, energy assistance and school lunches — reduced or eliminated. The Obama and George W. Bush administrations tried to make a similar change in the poverty line calculation with no luck. The public comment period ended June 21. It's unclear what, if any action, the administration will take.
  • Immigration

  • The Department of Homeland Security issued a final rule Aug. 12 making it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards or extend their visas if it appears likely that they will use government benefits, such as SNAP or housing aid. The administration says it is enforcing long-time U.S. law, which seeks to block immigrants who might become a "public charge." But immigrants' rights groups argue that the administration is dramatically reshaping the nation's immigration system by discouraging  lower-income individuals from coming into the country. Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told NPR that the nation still welcomed immigrants, but he suggested that the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty could be revised to say, "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." The new rule, which is set to go into effect Oct. 15, was immediately challenged in court by multiple advocacy groups and more than a dozen states.  They argue that the change threatens public health because it will discourage immigrant families from seeking medical aid, even for their citizen children.  Social service providers around the country report that they have seen a big drop in immigrant families signing up for assistance, including Medicaid and SNAP, because of fears that it could affect their status.  It is unclear what the outcome of the legal challenges will be.
  • President Trump signed a memorandum May 23 calling on federal agencies to enforce a law requiring those who sponsor green card holders to reimburse government agencies for the cost of any public benefits used by the immigrant. The administration says the law has not been fully enforced. "To protect benefits for American citizens, immigrants must be financially self-sufficient," Trump said in a statement announcing the move. Immigrants' rights advocates say the announcement is part of a larger campaign by the Trump administration to restrict both legal and illegal immigration. They note that most immigrants are banned from getting many government benefits until they have been in the country for five or more years. 
  • Housing

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed a new rule that would make it more difficult to press housing discrimination lawsuits under the Fair Housing Act.  Agency officials say they are trying to clarify the law in response to a recent Supreme Court ruling and that it will have no impact on cases involving intentional housing discrimination. But opponents say that the new rule will make it harder, if not impossible, to show that individuals have been unintentionally discriminated against by mortgage lenders and others because of their race, sex, disability, religion or other protected class. Fair housing advocates have vowed to fight the proposed rule, which they see as part of a broader campaign by the Trump administration to scale back civil rights enforcement.  The public comment period ends Oct. 18.
  • HUD has proposed a rule that would deny housing assistance to families with one or more members who are undocumented immigrants. The administration notes that those in the country illegally are not eligible for housing aid, although HUD now prorates rental assistance for "mixed status" families to take that into account.  By HUD's own estimate, 55,000 children who are either citizens or legal residents could lose their housing as a result of the move. Critics call the proposal "cruel" and have vowed to wage a vigorous campaign to block it. HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended the proposal, saying that "it seems only logical that taxpaying American citizens should be taken care of first" and that the change would provide more aid for needy Americans. However, HUD's own analysis concludes that the rule would lead to fewer people getting housing aid and to an increase in homelessness. The House has already voted to deny HUD funds to implement the change. The Senate has yet to act. It's unclear when a final rule will be issued. The public comment period ended July 9. 
  • The Agriculture Department is expected to propose a rule later this year similar to HUD's proposal, to restrict the use of rural housing assistance for households that have one or more members who are undocumented immigrants.
  • HUD is considering a proposal that would allow the operators of federally funded homeless shelters to determine which services transgender individuals can use. Operators could base their decisions on their religious beliefs, among other factors. Critics say that if the rule is adopted, transgender individuals could be kicked out of shelters or forced to use ones that serve a gender they do not identify with. Details of the rule are expected to be made public later this year.  About one in five transgender individuals experiences homelessness at some point, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
  • Medicaid work requirement

  • The administration approved waivers last year allowing eight states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, but legal challenges have so far blocked such efforts in Kentucky, Arkansas and New Hampshire. The administration argues that the requirement will encourage people to work, but opponents say it will deny low-income families much-needed medical aid. About 18,000 Arkansas residents lost their Medicaid coverage when the work requirements went into effect in that state last year. A federal judge called the administration's efforts in New Hampshire "arbitrary and capricious." The administration is appealing at least two of the court rulings.
  • Census citizenship question

  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross proposed adding a question to the 2020 census asking individuals if they are U.S. citizens. The administration said that it needed the information to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act, but civil rights groups argued that the real motive was to diminish minority representation. They said that the question would discourage immigrant households from participating in the decennial count and harm low-income communities. Census numbers are used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid, including many safety net benefits. The groups successfully challenged the administration's move in court. President Trump initially said he would continue to fight to include the question in the census, but then abruptly abandoned the effort and said the administration would look for other ways to collect citizenship data. 
  • Overtime pay

  • The Department of Labor has proposed increasing the wage level below which workers would automatically be eligible for overtime pay on time worked over 40 hours a week. The Trump administration would raise the current $23,660 a year threshold to $35,308, which would make an estimated 1 million more workers eligible for overtime. However, this proposal would replace an Obama-era rule that would have increased the level to $47,476 and covered four times as many workers. That plan has been blocked in court, in part because of strong opposition from small businesses, which say it would impose a large financial burden. The public comment period on the Trump proposal ended June 12 and the final rule could be released soon. Opponents are expected to challenge it in court.
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    Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.