Trump’s Cuts to SSDI Are a Master Class in Welfare Chauvinism

Welfare Chauvinism is roughly defined as the idea that welfare services ought to be restricted to certain kinds of people, generally following lines of race or ethnicity. In the United States, it’s a potent weapon given the country’s legacy of white supremacy, and a playbook that the Republican party has shamelessly turned to time and time again, with many a success. We got an interesting case study of this phenomenon recently, with the news of Trump’s budget cuts to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program.

At a press conference attempting to defend the cuts, Office of Management & Budget (OMB) Director and charlatan extraordinaire Mick Mulvaney tried his hand at deceit when he said

“Do you really think that Social Security Disability Insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security? I don’t think so.”

He would later expound on his comments, claiming:

“If you ask, 999 people out of 1,000 would tell you that Social Security disability is not part of Social Security. Old age retirement — that they think of as Social Security.”

It’s likely true that public consciousness of Social Security as a program is limited to its old age retirement portion. When most people think of Social Security, they likely think of their grandparents collecting a check from the government. This undoubtedly plays a role in the overall popularity of the social insurance program. In fact, public support for social programs in the United States has largely hinged upon public perception of who the recipients are.

Fundamental to the concept of Welfare Chauvinism are the politics of merit — who deserves what, and how is that determination made. On the Right, that answer lies somewhere between decent, hard-working white people, and people that own a lot of stuff that also happen to be white. White supremacy has always sought to deny black and brown folks the full range of citizenship rights, and the gutting of social programs that help poor and working class people of color represent another front in that attack.

Mulvaney’s comments are in keeping with this strategy. The OMB director shrewdly creates a wedge between two different constituents of the program — disabled folks and retirees. By implying that one class of recipients are worthy and another aren’t, Mulvaney’s key line of attack is built on the assumption that the public will buy into his framing of merit. Unsurprisingly, African Americans generally face lower life expectancy and higher rates of disability before retirement age relative to the rest of the population, making them more likely to hurt from cuts to SSDI. That people of color are far more reliant on SSDI cannot be divorced from handwringing over its legitimacy, a program with minimal waste and fraud.

But while Welfare Chauvinism is employed both intermittently and cynically, it could be a powerful political platform for the Right, if it weren’t for the rich old white men that control its apparatus. That this policy framework hasn’t extended to the full scope of Republican polity is a reflection of the overzealousness of its donors. Because if there’s one thing we know about the modern GOP and its elites, it’s that they’re equal opportunity abominators of poor and working people, and the Republican Party’s abhorrence of the plebes place them in potential conflict with a slice of its base. The exhaustive, if redundant portraits of working class Trump voters post-election are littered with stories of betrayal and suffering on the horizon at the prospect of major budget cuts and revamped healthcare.

However, reading these profiles also gives one the impression that Welfare Chauvinism would be a remarkably effective way of shoring up political support. According to one profile from the New York Times

“Judy Banks, a 70-year-old struggling to get by, said she voted for Trump because “he was talking about getting rid of those illegals.” But Banks now finds herself shocked that he also has his sights on funds for the Labor Department’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which is her lifeline. It pays senior citizens a minimum wage to hold public service jobs.

“This program makes sense,” said Banks, who was placed by the program into a job as a receptionist for a senior nutrition program. Banks said she depends on the job to make ends meet, and for an excuse to get out of the house.”

I suspect that that the Republican party could create a broad and winning coalition of white voters pursuing this strategy. Thank whatever god you pray to that their own greed and ineptitude continue to stand in the way.