Rhetoric aside, safety net spending continues to grow


To listen to some of the Trump administration’s critics, you would think the American safety net for families and the poor has been completely shredded. One recent example is an “Open Letter to the American People Concerning the Trump Administration’s Anti-Family Policies” that dozens of liberal groups issued on December 11, 2019. Most people probably missed that letter as they were busily writing their own Christmas cards or otherwise preparing for the holidays. To recap, it stated that “We, the undersigned, oppose this administration’s anti-family policies. United in our mission to support women, children, and families, we reject the administration’s callous track record on family policy, which has been nothing less than devastating for children and families.”

Just how devastating has this track record been, exactly? The chart below reviews recent levels of federal spending on the dozens of programs that make up the social safety net. It shows that, even as the economic recovery gained momentum and unemployment trended toward pre-recession levels during the second Obama administration (2013-2016), real federal safety net spending continued to grow. And then, as unemployment continued to fall to 50-year lows during the first part of the Trump administration, safety net spending leveled off before continuing its ascent to a new record level above $800 billion in 2019.  Wait, what?  That’s the “devastation” visited on children and families?

As the chart shows, much of the recent spending growth has been driven by expansions in Medicaid and other benefits provided under Obamacare. While that trend has continued despite the current administration’s efforts to the contrary, that doesn’t make the continued growth any less real. And part of the rise in 2019 came from expansions in the refundability of the child tax credit provided under the 2017 tax reforms President Trump signed into law. That has nearly doubled to $36 billion the annual support that credit provides to families whose incomes are low enough that they owe little or no income taxes.

So having inherited a safety net unprecedented in terms of spending and scope at a time when the economy was already improving, the Trump administration has kept the spending increases going despite continued declines in unemployment. It’s hard to see how that qualifies as “devastating for children and families.”

Note: “Health” includes Medicaid, Substance abuse and mental health services, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Affordable Care Act credits and subsidies. “Nutrition” includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, child nutrition and special milk programs, supplemental feeding programs, and commodity donations. “CTC” includes only the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit. “TANF” includes the federal share of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and child support payments to states. Spending adjusted to 2019 dollars using average annual Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U). Unemployment Rate reflects annual average. 2019 annual CPI-U approximated using most recent data available. 2019 spending levels are estimated according to source methodology.
Source: Office of Management and Budget, “Table 11.3—Outlays for Payments for Individuals by Category and Major Program: 1940–2024,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply