Column: A Trump presidency would threaten programs like Social Security. Here’s how we know.

Where does Donald Trump stand on social programs? Who can say?
(Associated Press)

Donald Trump’s supposed commitment to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is one of the positions said to set him apart from Republican orthodoxy, which has the knives out for all such programs.

During his campaign launch last June, Trump pledged to “save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts.” During a Republican debate in March, he said, “It’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.”

But as Zaid Jilani of the Intercept points out, the staff appointments of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee point in exactly the opposite direction. Among Trump’s top advisors are two men who have campaigned for years in favor of privatizing or otherwise cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and disability benefits. They’ve often done so while showing a lack of understanding about these programs or the consequences of their proposals.

53% of the children on the program are not real physically disabled... basically what it is, is becoming a substitute welfare program.

Trump advisor John Mashburn on child disability, in 2012


Jilani shines the spotlight on two particular advisors: Sam Clovis, a former Rick Perry campaign aide who joined the Trump campaign in August as national co-chair and senior policy advisor, and John Mashburn, an anti-abortion campaigner and longtime right-wing culture warrior whom Trump named policy director earlier this month.

Let’s look at their records.

At last week’s 2016 Fiscal Summit of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Clovis walked back Trump’s pledge to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched. “After the administration has been in place, then we will start to take a look at all of the programs, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare,” Clovis said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’ll start taking a hard look at those to start seeing what we can do in a bipartisan way.”

Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks disputed that Clovis’ words even “remotely” hinted at cuts. But he has argued strongly in the past for privatizing Social Security and Medicare as a way to cut their costs. In 2014, while running in Iowa for the U.S. Senate, Clovis told the Des Moines Register that he was “a strong believer in bringing private models to both Medicare and Social Security.” For those “below the age of 45 .... we need new systems for both.”

He also favored block-granting Medicaid -- an “easy step,” he said, that would allow “states to administer the program based on state needs.” Medicaid experts have observed, however, that some states have taken advantage of flexibility in Medicaid eligibility to cut off all but the most destitute families. Alabama and Texas, for example, limit Medicaid to families earning less than 18% of the federal poverty level, or $3,629 a year for a family of three.

Mashburn long has been an advocate of cutting social programs. In a 2012 interview with Ben Domenech of the right-wing Heartland Institute that Jilani unearthed, he also plumped for block-granting Medicaid. Notably, he also took a swipe at disability recipients, particularly children on the Supplemental Security Income disability program. (The exchange begins at the 20:39 mark of the recording, which can be found here.)

“There are 650,000 children on that program that... 53% of the children on the program are not real physically disabled,” he stated. “They are learning-disabled in schools and stuff. Basically what it is, is becoming a substitute welfare program.”

Contrary to an assertion by a Trump advisor, kids on medication are less likely, not more, to qualify for SSI disability.
Contrary to an assertion by a Trump advisor, kids on medication are less likely, not more, to qualify for SSI disability.

Mashburn went on to assert that parents were gaming the system by putting their children on drugs. “Basically, to qualify for that program, kids have got to be on psychotropic drugs,” he said. “In order to get a check, people are putting their kids on these drugs...for $1,000 a month benefits.”

This is a remarkable agglomeration of fantasy, urban legend and sheer misrepresentation, coming from someone the Heartland Institute identified as an authority on social programs, and who now occupies the highest echelon of a leading GOP presidential campaign.

The notion that disability is a “substitute welfare program” is a cherished shibboleth of the right. Among its core documents is a discreditable 2010 article in the Boston Globe cited by Mashburn. Here’s the truth, as we reported in 2013.

Contrary to the Globe’s assertion that parents were placing their kids on hyperactivity drugs so they’d qualify for disability, government investigators found the opposite — kids on those medications were “more likely to be denied” benefits. Of kids reported to be taking psychotropic drugs, more than two-thirds (68%) were rejected for SSI disability. As Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed, the qualification standards for children were, and are, stringent. Only about 40% are accepted.


It’s true that many of the 1.3 million children on SSI disability aren’t “physically disabled.” That doesn’t mean they don’t need help. About 11% are autistic, 21.4% have developmental disorders, and 8.9% have an “intellectual disability.” To qualify, these disorders have to be severe and, yes, disabling. Just because Mashburn can’t identify them by eyeballing children for physical disabilities doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent.

As for those checks, they’re not $1,000 a month and never have been. Currently, the maximum monthly SSI benefit is $733, much of which will go to treating and caring for a disabled child. At the time Mashburn was displaying his expertise to the Heartland folks, the maximum was $698 and the average benefit for a disabled child was $615.

Will a Trump administration do all its policy-making this way? The prospect is unnerving. It’s one thing for Trump to proclaim that he sees no need to cut social programs, but none of his promises will hold water as long as he surrounds himself with “experts” who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email


Return to Michael Hiltzik’s blog.