As I wrote a few weeks ago, the 2024 presidential election offers a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the candidates’ records while in office. I examined poverty rates during each of their terms and, at first glance, former President Trump appears to have outperformed President Biden, at least during the first three years of his time in office. Still, there were enough caveats and questions to suggest that there were limits to the usefulness of the measure. It may be more useful, then, to look at some of the policies both presidents pursued and their outcomes. 

President Trump’s budgets generally proposed significant reductions in spending for social welfare programs. However, few of those cuts survived the legislative process, and the Trump administration did not fight particularly hard for them. 

Still, President Trump tried to make some changes. Trump has long advocated for tougher work requirements for welfare programs. In 2018, he signed an executive order on “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” which required all federal agencies to enforce current work requirements and propose additional, stronger requirements. Additionally, Trump gave states more flexibility to run welfare programs.

In 2019, Trump’s Department of Agriculture issued a rule that would have increased work requirements under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. However, the rule was suspended shortly before it would have taken effect because it was overridden by COVID policy. 

While campaigning for re-election in 2020, Trump frequently claimed that he had “lifted 10 million people off welfare.” As a fact sheet issued by the White House Council of Economic Advisors put it, “Food insecurity has fallen, and there are nearly seven million fewer people participating in SNAP than there were at the time of the 2016 election. The caseload for [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] has fallen by more than 900,000 individuals, and the number of individuals on Social Security Disability Insurance has fallen by almost 400,000 since the 2016 election. Similarly, Medicaid & CHIP enrollment reported by states is down by three million.”

And, while the exact number is difficult to pin down—Trump gets to 10 million by simply adding up the declines in different programs while ignoring significant participation overlap—the number of people participating in most traditional social welfare programs definitely declined during his administration. The largest decline was for SNAP, which had roughly five to six million fewer participants, a somewhat smaller drop than Trump claims, but still substantial.

President Biden, in contrast, took office calling for an expansion of the social safety net. To some degree, Biden’s plans were driven by the need to respond to the COVID pandemic, but they also reflected his general belief in the role of government. As a result, he quickly reversed Trump’s work and eligibility requirements for Medicaid and SNAP. Biden also issued an executive order extending a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits and allowing states to increase benefits as well.

Biden’s most ambitious anti-poverty proposal was the American Rescue Plan, a massive $3.5 trillion effort that would have established universal pre-K education, increased government funding for child care, and permanently boosted the child tax credit (CTC), among other things. However, faced with bipartisan opposition, Biden eventually settled for a dramatically scaled-back version that dropped most benefit increases and limited the CTC expansion to a temporary one-year measure.

Biden also reversed course and agreed to Republican proposals for increased work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid as part of the 2023 debt ceiling deal.

The number of Americans receiving food stamps has risen only modestly during Biden’s tenure, up three percent. Benefits have increased much faster, up 54 percent during Biden’s first two years in office, mostly from doomed efforts to keep up with inflation. Despite the additional spending, food insecurity has actually risen under President Biden, from 10.2 to 12.8 percent of U.S. households. Again, this increase is in large part caused by inflation. 

If the past is prologue, the record suggests that Biden and Trump have very different views of the American welfare system, although both presidents were willing to adjust their proposals to political and economic circumstances. In general, President Biden has tried to expand the social safety net and supported unconditional transfers. In many ways, his policies are a throwback to the New Deal and the Great Society programs of the 20th century. President Trump has not been a great welfare reformer but has generally sought to trim programs. He has also supported traditional conservative approaches to welfare like enforcing work requirements. Neither Trump nor Biden was inclined to fight for far-reaching reform or to change the system from one focused on minimizing the pain of poverty to one that sought to help people escape from poverty. 

Of course, most Americans are interested in what the candidates propose to do now. In my next installment, I will dig deeper into their plans and proposals.