White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney faced a barrage of questions from reporters Thursday about the Trump administration's desire to slash spending on domestic programs, including a number that help the poor, in order to finance a military buildup, which it outlined in its preliminary “skinny” budget. In the course of the cross-examination, Mulvaney managed to offer up one of the most deeply cynical justifications for yanking benefits from the needy that I have ever seen.
Quick context: Early on in the Q&A, Mulvaney explained that the administration didn't want to fund programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts because it wasn't fair to ask coal-mining families in West Virginia to pay for them with their tax dollars. (Yes, I know, coal miners' kids like PBS too. Just bracket the point.) That led to this exchange:
Reporter: You were talking about the steel worker in Ohio and the coal miner in Pennsylvania and so on. But those workers may have an elderly mother who depends on the Meals on Wheels program, who may have kids in Head Start. And yesterday or the day before you described this as a hard power budget but is it also a hard-headed budget?
Mulvaney: I don't think so. I think it's probably one of the most compassionate things we can do to—
Reporter: Cutting programs that help the elderly?
Mulvaney: You're only focusing on half of the equation, right? You're focusing on recipients of the money. We're focusing on recipients of the money and people who give us the money in the first place. I think it's fairly compassionate to go to them and say, look, we're not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore. Single mom of two in Detroit, OK, “Give us your money!” We're not going to do that anymore unless we can—please let me finish. Unless we can guarantee that money will be used in a proper function. That is about as compassionate as you can get.
Got that? Mulvaney says the White House is cutting Head Start to make sure it doesn't waste the taxes of single mothers in Detroit, because it's just that compassionate. Honestly, I would have more respect for the man if he'd stood up on stage with a stock pot and said the administration had decided that the poor should be boiled into bone broth. At least then he'd have the courage of his convictions.
Much to the frustration of conservatives like Mulvaney, we have progressive taxation in this country, which means that low-income single mothers in cities like Detroit tend not to pay much in income taxes. If anything, they owe federal payroll taxes, which fund things like Social Security and Medicare, programs that aren't even dealt with in the partial budget the White House just released. The Trump administration is not saving struggling parents a dime by cutting the Head Start or Community Development Block Grant funding that helps their kids get into pre-K or that feeds their parents. You can argue at length about whether some of these programs work as intended—I certainly don't have much faith that this White House will pay attention to the best social science out there—but nobody can say with a straight face that the administration is simply looking after the interests of needy mothers. Mulvaney's rhetorical crocodile tears are plain vile.
I mean, here's how much chutzpah we're talking about: This is all coming from the same administration that proposed a plan raising taxes on single parents during the presidential campaign while offering massive breaks to the 0.1 percent.
And what about the coal miners and factory workers, who presumably do pay some federal income tax? Let's consider a bit of back-of the-envelope math: The bottom 75 percent of Americans, who file 105 million returns, pay about 13 percent of all federal income taxes. The Trump administration, in its budget, is shuffling $54 billion from an assortment of spending programs to defense. Multiply by 0.13 and that works out to about $67 per taxpayer that the administration is “saving” by spending it on Navy ships, F-35 fighter jets, and a border wall with Mexico, while cutting programs that help the old pay for heat during the winter or send low-income kids to after-school programs. I'm sure those coal miners will be thrilled to see money pulled out of their communities to escalate a naval arms race nobody asked for.
Truly, the compassion is staggering.