Programs that help poor Kentuckians face big cuts under Trump’s budget plan

Senate Budget Committee staff members lay out copies of President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 federal budget for distribution on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Senate Budget Committee staff members lay out copies of President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 federal budget for distribution on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 23, 2017. AP

Federal spending on programs that help poor people would see significant cuts under the budget President Donald Trump proposed Tuesday.

The safety-net cuts and other proposed reductions would fall particularly hard on Eastern Kentucky, where voters supported Trump by an overwhelming margin in the election.

The budget would reduce spending for food stamps and housing assistance; cut Medicaid, the health program for poor and disabled people; cut Social Security disability payments; and eliminate funding for heating assistance and a program that provides money for free civil legal help for poor people in Eastern Kentucky.

“It’s a cruel budget. It would be devastating to Kentucky’s economy, especially in the rural parts of the state,” said Jason Bailey, executive director of the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Trump also proposed killing the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has directed hundreds of millions to Eastern Kentucky for roads, waterlines, worker training and other programs.

The budget would provide just $26.7 million for severance payments and other costs to close the agency, down from $152 million in the current budget.

In addition, Trump’s budget would eliminate $30 million in funding Kentucky is slated to receive to reclaim abandoned coal lands in ways designed to boost economic development, even as the eastern coalfield struggles to diversify its economy in the wake of a plunge in coal jobs.

And the budget would take back $444 million Congress appropriated to build a 1,200-inmate federal prison in Letcher County.

Local officials worked for more than a decade to attract the prison and its 300 jobs to a county desperate for employment, with help from Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who pushed for funding for the facility.

The White House said it would be more efficient to boost capacity at an existing prison, and also envisions using private prisons if needed.

Rogers, who represents the 5th District in Eastern and Southern Kentucky, said Trump’s budget includes important funding for priorities such as immigration enforcement and fighting the mounting abuse of opioid drugs such as heroin, while preserving Social Security and Medicare.

But Rogers said some of the proposed cuts would be “rather deep and harmful” to his district and to other rural, relatively poor areas.

Rogers said Congress “must ensure that we take care of the less fortunate and protect federal programs, like the Appalachian Regional Commission, that provide vital resources for rural communities and families every year.”

The commission has a lot of supporters because it covers all or parts of 13 states. Republicans have tried to kill it before without success.

Rogers also said he would work to preserve funding for the prison.

The proposed cut in food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would be 29 percent under Trump’s budget.

The program helps feed hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians. Enrollment in December 2015 was 647,056, for instance, according to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Trump’s plan also would shift 25 percent of the cost of food stamps to state governments. The federal government pays all the cost now.

If the state didn’t pick up all that cost, it would mean a further cut.

It’s possible the state wouldn’t pay the entire match because state revenue goes down during the same times of economic problems when the need for food stamps goes up, Bailey said.

The SNAP program is not lavish, he said, providing $1.36 per meal for beneficiaries, but he said it provides crucial support for people in need.

“That’s one of the most damaging things in the whole budget,” he said of the proposed SNAP cut.

The White House said the proposed changes would increase the incentive for states to “create economic paths to self sufficiency” for residents.

Trump’s budget also would reduce projected spending on Medicaid by nearly 12 percent.

The number of low-income Kentuckians without health insurance has gone down sharply the last few years because of an expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, though many Republicans say the expensive expansion is unsustainable.

More than 1 million Kentuckians are covered by Medicaid.

Gov. Matt Bevin has asked the federal government for a waiver to make changes in the program that are designed to save $2.2 billion.

The new program would include premiums and co-pays for participants and a requirement that able-bodied adults spend at least 20 hours a week at a job, in classes, or doing volunteer work or other approved activities.

A study showed that many Medicaid participants would lose benefits under that system, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

But a spokesman for Bevin’s administration said the program, called Kentucky HEALTH, will improve health, education and work opportunities while stabilizing the cost of the program.

“Kentucky HEALTH does not change eligibility thresholds; people who participate in the program will have access to the same health coverage and benefits they have today,” Doug Hogan said. “There will be no changes in benefits for certain low-income adults, caregivers, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with disabilities.”

Trump’s proposed budget also would cut spending on Social Security disability programs.

In one, called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, the budget would reduce payments if a family received disability checks for more than one child.

Eastern Kentucky has one of the highest rates in the nation of people receiving Social Security disability payments.

Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said at a news conference Tuesday that the budget was designed to cut waste and encourage work. People who are not truly disabled need to go to work, for instance, he said.

The administration understands the need for compassion for vulnerable people, but that compassion should extend to taxpayers as well, Mulvaney said.

“We looked at this budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the bills,” Mulvaney said.

Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock, a Republican, said it’s obvious there is fraud and abuse in programs such as SNAP and Social Security disability, but that the programs are necessary.

If Trump’s aggressive move to cut them results in more oversight, that will be a good thing, Brock said.

But Brock said Congress will not approve the level of cuts Trump proposes, citing the 2018 mid-term elections.

“They’re not going to go into these mid-term elections doing that,” Brock said.

Democrats and anti-poverty advocates blasted Trump’s proposal, saying it would hurt the most vulnerable Americans to pay for a tax cut for the rich.