State programs offer a ‘lifeline’ to those who need it most, HHS boss Miller says. In Trump’s America, that’s critical | John L. Micek

July 22, 2019 3:44 pm

Pa. Dept. of Health & Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller addresses the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, July 22, 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

You could be forgiven for thinking that there are two economies.

To hear President Donald Trump tell it, things have never been better. The stock market is roaring. Unemployment is at a historic low, and consumer spending is healthy and vibrant.

Indeed, the strong economy helped bump Trump’s approval rating in a July 7 ABC News/Washington Post poll. A majority of respondents, 51 percent, said they approved of his handling of the economy.

Nonetheless, there could be some rough sailing ahead. As the Washington Post reports, business leaders are sufficiently concerned about long-term prospects that they’re pulling back on spending. Trump is also pressuring the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates to goose the economy, the newspaper reported.

And some recent headlines also point to potential economic soft spots for the Republican.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, former Obama administration economist Steven Rattner points out that the Trump economy is still leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans behind. Those affected include African-Americans, a core part of the Democratic base, and manufacturing workers, many of whom voted for Trump in the belief that he’d reinvigorate that sector of the economy.

Rather than making gains, the earnings of black Americans have declined over the last two decades, Rattner writes.

“In 2002, African-Americans, on average, earned just over 80 percent of what white Americans earned. By the first quarter of this year, after various ups and downs, that figure had fallen to about 76 percent,” he observed.

Cash assistance for disabled Pennsylvanians will be eliminated, as Wolf says he will sign budget bill

Then there are the manufacturing workers. Focusing on autoworkers — who hail from the key battleground state of Michigan — Rattner writes that their wages, “after adjusting for inflation, fell by 26 percent between 2002 and 2013. And since then, real earnings for this group have barely budged.”

Then there’s this difficult number, via the Fed’s 2018 Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making: 40 percent of Americans would struggle to come up with even $400 to cover an unexpected bill.

As CNBC reports, debt is one of the factors driving that hard economic reality. But as more Americans juggle expenses and income, they get caught in a cycle of debt that can be difficult to escape.

And that means that preserving and increasing spending on such joint state-federal social programs as Medicaid and SNAP (or food stamps) is more important than ever.

“These are lifelines to help Pennsylvanians who are already working poverty-level jobs,” Teresa Miller, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, said during a lunchtime speech Monday.

Her audience: a mixed group of lobbyists, business leaders, policy wonks, and journalists, who, for the most part, are unlikely to ever access those programs. But, as Miller noted, that doesn’t mean that someone living well now might not eventually find themselves in need of a temporary hand-up.

“They’re as much there for when our own circumstances change as for the people who are using [the services] now,” she said. “Our investment in these programs goes to all of us.”

Yet, in each of his last three budget proposals, Trump, abetted by Republican allies on Capitol Hill, has worked diligently to slash safety net programs. Some of those harmed live in such key 2020 states as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which went for Trump in 2016.

Despite some progress, Miller said Monday that such safety net programs as food stamps still come freighted with stigma, pointing to the example of one woman who was hounded and abused in a grocery store parking lot after using her electronic benefits card. That, in turn, has made it harder to enroll people in programs that can do measurable good.

The hothouse rhetoric out of Washington on safety net spending, as well as Trump’s own statements, haven’t helped much, she added. Most benefit recipients “want a better life” and are doing all they can to get there.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the Republican-led General Assembly killed the state’s cash assistance program, which provides $200 monthly payments to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including the disabled, those struggling with addiction, and women fleeing domestic violence.

Advocates are already trying to connect the 11,000 people set to lose the money on Aug. 1 with services that can help them bridge the gap. As a side note, that $200 is less than two nights’ worth of the taxpayer-funded expense money lawmakers receive to cover their meals and lodging when the Legislature is in session.

To be sure, the leading 2020 presidential candidates, such as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, have homed in on the economic challenges facing working Americans, and they have hit hard at a system they believe is rigged against the average cubicle-dweller or assembly line employee.

Both Warren and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for instance, have directed badly needed attention at the evils of private equity: the corporate raiders who swoop in, buy up companies, and then sell them off for parts.

Sanders was in Philadelphia to protest the looming closing of Hahnemann Hospital, which was recently scooped up by a private equity firm that wants to close it and strip its assets, leaving thousands unemployed and thousands more without access to care.

The question is whether progressives will be able to effectively exploit these weaknesses in the midst of the 24/7 noise machine that is Trump, and with a 2020 primary pack now so large and unwieldy that the candidates and their positions tend to run together.

And that message has to be particularly loud in the states that Trump carried in 2016 like Pennsylvania, and where skeptical independents and Trump-trying Democrats will be key to turning the Keystone State blue in 2020.

There’s still time, of course, but the message that too many Americans are still being left behind has to get a lot louder — fast.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.