Eduardo Porter
Eduardo Porter

You could almost hear the gasps from both sides of the ideological divide when President Trump unveiled the outline of his first budget late last month, proposing to slice $54 billion from the discretionary civilian budget next year to pay for a beefed-up defense.

That part of the budget pays for pretty much everything the government does other than the military, pensions and health insurance for older people. And it has been slashed repeatedly already. It adds up to only some $500 billion, hardly the best place to balance a $4 trillion federal budget. After Mr. Trump’s proposed cuts it would be 25 percent smaller than it was in 2010, adjusted for inflation.

Even Republicans in Congress, no friends of government spending, argued that the math made little sense. While they share Mr. Trump’s twin goals of balancing the budget and slashing taxes, they would prefer to square the circle by cutting the entitlements of Social Security and Medicare.

And yet Mr. Trump’s approach possesses a powerful political logic: The frazzled, anxious working-class men and women who voted for him like Social Security, Medicare and defense. Other government spending, not so much. Notably, there is little political cost for Mr. Trump — in fact, potential benefit — in going after means-tested programs for the poor.

These programs appeal to two constituencies that working-class voters show little affinity for: the poor and urban liberal elites who can express enormous sympathy for the disenfranchised while ignoring the struggle of the white working class.

While Mr. Trump is not the first Republican to propose cutting anti-poverty programs to pay for tax cuts, his bluntness breaks, at least rhetorically, with a Republican establishment that insists it cares about poverty.

His political calculation could, paradoxically, protect Social Security and Medicare, entitlements that the Republican Party has tried so hard to rein in. But in areas as diverse as food stamps and housing assistance, education for the disadvantaged and Head Start, it could further fray the rest of America’s threadbare social safety net.

In “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” due out in May from Harvard Business Review Press, Joan C. Williams argues that white workers’ resentment of the safety net should not be surprising: They get next to no benefit from it.

Ms. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, writes that these struggling workers resent not only the poor beneficiaries of the government’s largess but also the liberal policy makers who seem to believe that only the poor are deserving of help. And they bristle at the perceived condescension of a liberal elite that seems to blame them for their failure to acquire the necessary skills to rise to the professional class.

By contrast, they see themselves as hard-working citizens who struggle to make ends meet, only to be left out of many of the government programs their taxes pay for.

Over all, 61 percent of poor Americans draw from one means-tested benefit program or another, according to an analysis by the Census Bureau. But among families with incomes above the poverty line — many of which are barely better off, making just over $24,000 for a family of four — only 13 percent do.

Struggling middle-income families may not understand that welfare programs are so meager that the poor hardly get any help. But they can directly understand that they missed out on the earned-income tax credit because their family income hit $50,000. It is not surprising that harried working mothers resent that 30 percent of low-income families using center-based child care receive some form of subsidy while middle-income families get next to nothing.

“All they see is their stressed-out daily lives, and they resent subsidies and sympathy available to the poor,” Professor Williams wrote.

President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act — the most significant expansion of the safety net since the War on Poverty in the 1960s — has unsurprisingly bred class resentment, too. Many disgruntled workers see it as another program for poor people that just pushed up their own premiums, offering little of benefit.

The working-class whites who turned out so enthusiastically for Mr. Trump include people like Lee Sherman, 82, from Louisiana, living precariously on Social Security after a life of hard and dangerous work fitting pipes, and exposed to all manner of toxic chemicals, at a petrochemical plant.

Aversion to the safety net is built into his moral view of the world. “He knew liberal Democrats wanted him to care more about welfare recipients,” wrote the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who portrayed Mr. Sherman in her book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” (The New Press). “But he didn’t want their P.C. rules telling him who to feel sorry for.”

To people like Mr. Sherman, government benefits tied to work, like Social Security and unemployment insurance, are legitimate rewards for one’s effort. Welfare recipients, by contrast, just “lazed around days and partied at nights,” he told Professor Hochschild.

Racial mistrust is never far from the surface: Only 13 percent of non-Hispanic whites draw benefits from means-tested programs, according to the Census Bureau analysis, compared with 42 percent of African-Americans and 36 percent of Hispanics. So while most beneficiaries of welfare programs are white, many working-class whites perceive them as schemes to hand their tax dollars to minorities.

Mr. Trump’s agenda serves both race and class resentment: Whites are twice as likely as blacks to prefer a smaller government, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Among middle-income Americans, 56 percent would like the government to be smaller and offer fewer services, while among the poor, only 38 percent would like the government to shrink. It is the middle-income whites whom Mr. Trump has promised to serve.

These resentments are hard to swallow on the left of the political spectrum. Since the 1960s, at least, liberal activists have held to the belief that a grand progressive alliance was possible: working men and women, the poor, immigrants, racial and other minorities coming together in a coalition to counter conservatives and their corporate allies.

November’s election — when whites without a college degree voted for Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton by 39 percentage points — pretty much drove a stake into those hopes.

But could they be revived? As the president takes an ax to much of the government, the pressing question for liberals is whether a coalition can be built to protect the meager social safety net that remains. Could they draw back in the white working-class voters who rejected them so soundly in November?

These voters care less about gender rights and minorities. They may not share liberal views on abortion rights. They are unlikely to support a safety net that allows a poor woman to stay at home while offering nothing to a hard-working couple tag-teaming day and night shifts to care for their children.

But, Professor Williams notes, the liberal goal can’t be saved without them: “If America’s policy makers better understood white working-class anger against the social safety net, they might have a shot at creating programs that don’t get gutted in this way.”