BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This week, the president released a minimal blueprint of his budget priorities, addressing only discretionary spending, about 30% of government outlays. The budgets of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs go up and virtually everything else - goes down, in some cases, way, way down. As for the other 70% of the budget, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the national debt, well, we don't know Trump’s plans. This is what is known in Washington as a preliminary or “skinny budget” but that's putting it lightly.
CATHERINE RAMPELL: Usually, when an administration comes in, they release this so-called “skinny budget” which kind of gives the broad outline of what their fiscal plans are, and then later on they fill in all the blanks. As one economist I spoke with put it, this skinny budget is emaciated.
BOB GARFIELD: Catherine Rampell, columnist for the Washington Post, says that if the budget plan is short on budget plans, it is long on politics.
CATHERINE RAMPELL: It’s basically a campaign document, near as I can tell. It's about telling the base, see, we are draining the swamp. We’re doing everything that we say we’re going to do. It's filled with a lot of rhetoric that has this kind of campaign feel to it, things like, we’re putting America first and other kind of sloganeering. And part of the reason why I don't think this is meant to be taken as a serious document is that it’s been heavily criticized, [LAUGHS] actually, by a lot of Republicans on the Hill. They were not trying to extend an olive branch to Democrats, let alone to their fellow Republicans. This was really just about being able to say, if this doesn't get through, it's not our fault.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, while the language of the document echoes Trump’s campaign promises, its details, the few that there are, tell a different story.
CATHERINE RAMPELL: Another thing that I'm concerned about is various programs to help the poor. Some of those are safety net programs, whether it's Meals on Wheels or subsidies for low-income people to pay their rent, to pay for energy. There’s a big cut coming to before-school, after-school and summer programs that a lot of poor working parents rely on and are actually on waiting lists to get into. But then there are other programs that will also affect low-income people that are not exactly what we think of as safety net programs, like the enforcement that the Labor Department does to make sure employers are abiding by minimum wage laws or are not having unsafe work environments, or things like that.
BOB GARFIELD: We’ll be hearing more from Catherine Rampell later in the show. Meanwhile, you'd be forgiven for mistaking this “skinny” budget for a “cruel” one, as many have called it after its release. But, as Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained to CNN's Jim Acosta this week, it's actually quite the opposite.
JIM ACOSTA: You were talking about the steelworker 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 or 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-hearted budget?
MICK MULVANEY: I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s, I think it’s probably one of the most compassionate things we can do to actually take – you’re, you’re -
JIM ACOSTA: Cut programs that help the elderly and kids?
MICK MULVANEY: You’re only focusing on half of the equation, right? You’re focusing on recipients of the money. We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place. And 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.
BOB GARFIELD: He’s talking about all the great tax savings the indigent will enjoy. But poor people don't have big tax bills. They do, however, have a great need for many of the programs now on the chopping block. And, as it happens, many of those people are Trump voters. So how does the man who ran on the promise that he alone could make everything better for them rationalize the fact that in his first 100 days in office his administration seems to be planning to make their lives worse?
Curiously, when pressed by Fox's Tucker Carlson on the effects of the Republican health care plan, the president told the truth.
TUCKER CARLSON: A Bloomberg analysis showed that counties that voted for you, middle-class and working-class counties, would do far less well under this bill than the counties that voted for Hillary, the more affluent counties.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yeah, well I know that. I know.
TUCKER CARLSON: It seems like maybe this isn't consistent with the message of the last election.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, a lot of things aren't consistent. But these are going to be negotiated.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, a recognition of reality, if only the reality weren't so ominous for so many, if only this moment of truth weren't - exactly that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That the president’s act has fallen so harshly on programs for the poor was shocking to some but not to Jack Frech, who actually works with the poor. For 30 years, he served as welfare director in Appalachian Ohio and also as a guide for our recent series, “Busted: America's Poverty Myths.” To Frech, the proposals put forward by the Trump administration are disheartening, but they're hardly unique. In fact, they are perennial and bipartisan. For example, the Clinton administration bundled what was once federal welfare assistance into block grants to states where the money was shriveled by inflation and often misdirected or hoarded by the states. Now, the Republican Congress is considering block granting Medicaid. Jack, welcome back.
JACK FRECH: Glad to be back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As someone who’s been working with those in poverty for decades, what do you see that’s familiar in the current proposals, you know, the health care bill, the proposed budget, and so on?
JACK FRECH: Basically, you know, what’s happening here is, is the Republicans do not believe in government, in general, and specifically some of these entitlements. They generally don't believe that there is a right to health care. That's why now they talk in terms of people having access to it.
MALE COMMENTATOR: These people are going to have access to health care and better health care, and they’re going to be empowered in this, so people are not going to lose their health insurance, ‘cause they – it will be accessible. They will have the opportunity to, to have health care, I can assure you.
JACK FRECH: Well, the truth of the matter is, is back when we had 40 million people were running short, everyone had the opportunity to buy health care, if they could afford it. What’s familiar to me, going way back, is, of course, the same kind of assault on government that I remember vividly during the Reagan administration. Rather than declaring the media as the enemy, he declared government as the enemy.
PRESIDENT REAGAN: I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I'm from the government and I’m here to help.”
JACK FRECH: And he similarly appointed people to cabinet positions who actually opposed the programs that they were now running. Basically, we’re just taking a whole step back in history to the time when people could have health care if they could afford it and if you can't, then it was kind of like that’s not government’s problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Their underlying assumption is that more money will flow into the economy if we tie less of it up in big government and all boats will rise.
JACK FRECH: This has been the myth that has been promoted by this party all these years. We’ve already done tax cuts for years and years. Those things have not stimulated the economy here, have not grown living wage jobs.
Now, the trouble is from the Democratic side. Their pushback has been what I would call “push back light.” I mean, I think the Democrats became so enamored with what they had done with NAFTA, what they’d done with welfare reform, all the things that happened under Bill Clinton. All that kind of stuff did not benefit us, in the long run, and the hubris of the party will not allow them to accept that their basic tenets of their philosophy have not worked. And that’s true for both parties.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that the Democrats are so loathe to admit they were wrong about NAFTA and about block granting aid to the poor to the states and, and those things, that they’re sort of hoist on their own petard. I wonder, though, when the Republicans talk against big government, talk about reducing the role of government, can't the Democrats offer some big push back there?
JACK FRECH: Well, they could but Barack Obama, throughout his whole term in office, all they ever reported on was the increase in private sector jobs. They almost never ever even talked about public sector jobs and the fact that there were more public sector jobs lost during the Obama administration than any of the previous administrations, even under Reagan, and then the fact that the biggest cut in food stamps happened at the direction of the Obama administration, not at the direction of the Republicans.
And the other thing to remember is the Obamacare program itself was, in fact, a private sector intervention in health care originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation. It basically forced everyone to buy insurance through the private sector and, you know, once they dropped the public option it was entirely privatized, and then problems that all cropped up with increased premiums, with increased deductibles, with increased costs and with lack of access. People in the private sector running those businesses made those choices and it essentially then was used to hang the Obamacare program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying that since the Democratic administration and other Democratic administrations have done things that have reduced the role of government, they’re poor advocates for the power of government to do good.
JACK FRECH: Yes, in order for them to do so, and they should do so, the first thing they have to do is admit they were wrong. I mean, everyone talks about how hard it is for Donald Trump to ever admit he's wrong about anything. Well, you know, I don't think that Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi or Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are any better at saying, these are the things that we did that were wrong. And what you will hear is when these debates start happening the Republicans are going to say, but you already agreed to this concept for welfare reform. We worked together on those things, but now we’re telling you that we’re just trying to do those same things and offer that same success for the Medicaid program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, on the news the other day former Republican presidential candidate and Republican Congressman Rick Santorum was sharing a platform with Gene Sperling who was an economist in the Clinton administration.
JACK FRECH: And Santorum was the one who said, but Gene, don’t you remember when you and I worked together to have this great success with welfare reform.
SENATOR RICK SANTORUM: I believe that the – that their answer here is for Republicans to take a step back and do what Gene Sperling and I did together back in the 1990s. Gene and I worked on a bill called welfare reform. And what Gene and Bill Clinton and a lot of other Republicans and Democrats did was to take this money, give it back to the states, let the states innovate.
JACK FRECH: And threw it back to Sperling who was just dumbstruck and basically said, well, that was different.
GENE SPERLING: And I appreciate Senator Santorum mentioning moments we were bipartisan but this – but I, I don’t agree with him in this case, in terms of Medicaid –
JACK FRECH: But what Sperling did not say is, yes, we worked together on all those things and they were a disaster. This was terrible for poor people. Their lives are infinitely worse off now than they were before that. That’s what he needed to say. He never said that. There has never been a time when anyone other than Bernie, anyone other than Bernie in the Democratic Party has really stepped up and said, no, this was a failure. This was not a success, it was a terrible failure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve described the failures of both political parties and also of the media, so let’s dig into that. What’s the problem here? Is it that reporters just haven't done their homework or is there something else going on?
JACK FRECH: I don't think they’ve done their homework. There may be a bigger question as to why they haven't done their homework. The easiest way for them to structure a debate is to have a Republican on and have a Democrat on and say, okay, go at it. I don't think that folks in media have been able to take the time and the homework they need to do to actually be the arbitrators of the truth and to call people on both sides and say, these are the facts that we know about this issue. And, of course, there is not the same kind of local reporting, investigative reporting going on about these issues that build up to a more national understanding about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the chief narratives that emerged after the election was that the mainstream media had lost touch with the lived reality of many people.
JACK FRECH: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you seen any improvement in the media coverage since?
JACK FRECH: I have. I have seen better coverage, sending real people out to Kentucky and West Virginia and Ohio and places like that and talking to people. Mostly the angle they’re looking is, do you realize you’re voting against your own best interest?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JACK FRECH: That seems to be what they're looking for out there, and they’re finding people who are hurting. At least they’re getting out there and they’re talking to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they don't feel they’re voting against their economic self-interest?
JACK FRECH: I don't think they believe that, yet. These folks are hardworking people and what they want are the living wage jobs that they used to have. Donald Trump is the guy who stepped up and said, I'm going to give those back to you. They were so desperate, and people did not understand how desperate they were, that they basically said, okay, [LAUGHS] you know, we will give you a chance.
And the other thing to keep in mind about that is that people who struggle every day just to survive do not spend their time on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, waiting for the latest comment or goofy thing that Donald Trump’s going to say and the mounds of response that come from the media. They’re not going to be able to look into the nuance of the different Medicaid program versus block grant versus entitlement. Not that they’re not smart enough. They just don’t have the time. Their lives are consumed by paying the rent, keeping their car running, getting to work all different hours of the day or night. And so, they’re still waiting for the promise made to them about their lives getting better, about them still having health care, like he promised, about them having living wage jobs, like he promised. All the great things he promised, they're still waiting for those things to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I hear you when you say these people are too busy to be having rich and varied media diets that can provide them with all kinds of information, but I wonder, do they have any at all or simply they heard him on the campaign trail, he's never really left the campaign trail and the information that comes out just isn’t getting through?
JACK FRECH: Well, this goes back to the core issue about Trump, in the first place. They were desperate enough to reach out to vote for this guy with just pie-in-the-sky promises because their lives were so desperate, to begin with. And so, it's not as though hoping that he succeeds is, you know, a political thing for them, an ideological thing. This is their hope at survival.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so journalists are trying to suss out people whose experience is so often different from their own. How do you recommend they do that?
JACK FRECH: My greatest wish for journalism has been just that they’d go out and report the real facts for what people's lives are like out there. Instead of looking at this from a standpoint of politics, they need to be looking at this as what is the status of people in our country? What are their lives like, what are their issues? And then you follow from that to the parties to say, are either of these parties addressing the issues that we find when we go out and talk to Americans? You don't need to go very far to do that. You need to go out with just an open mind and talk to them in a nonjudgmental way. I think a lot of folks, even out in the field when they’re out there talking to the right people, their whole thing is, why did you vote wrong? [LAUGHS] Why did you make the mistake of voting for Donald Trump? Well, you know, you need to approach it much more from the standpoint of, why was that the right decision for you, in your mind?
And the other thing is that these folks, that they are fatalistic and don't feel like they have the power to control this. The last lever they thought they’d pulled to fix this was the one where they voted for Donald Trump.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Jack, thank you very much.
JACK FRECH: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Frech is a former welfare director in Athens County, Ohio. To hear him in all five episodes of our series, “Busted” go to onthemedia.org/poverty.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, arguments over numbers, who supplies them and why do we have to believe them if we don’t feel like it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.