Next Tuesday, President Trump will share his view of the state of our union. And if his words correlate with his actions over the last year, the dominant theme will be one of division and disruption. Like no president in recent history, Donald Trump has pushed U.S. residents to cordon ourselves off into dueling tribes whose theories of governance and policymaking diverge and whose basic facts and language are starting to split in disturbing ways.
But on whichever side of the divide each of us finds ourselves, most of us face some common challenges in daily life, including keeping ourselves and our kids safe and healthy, earning fair pay for a day’s work, and steering clear of the predatory business practices that are difficult to spot without graduate-level work in deciphering fine print.
Until this time last year, we had federal agencies teeming with dedicated public servants working for a president who pushed them to help us navigate those challenges. That all changed on January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump set a new standard for what public interest agencies like the EPA and the FDA ought to do (not much) and installed agency leadership whose uniting characteristic seems to be inherent opposition to their agencies’ missions.
In anticipation of President Trump’s likely self-congratulations on his regulatory record in next week’s State of the Union Address, I surveyed CPR’s Member Scholars and staff for their thoughts on the state of the administrative state, posing the question: What does the Trump administration’s regulatory record say about the state of social inequality in America? Some common themes emerged.
Much like the recently passed tax overhaul, the Trump administration’s assaults on protective safeguards have the effect of producing a massive transfer in “wealth” from working- and middle-class families to the top 1 percent. The “wealth” being misappropriated from the poor through deregulation is measured in asthma attacks, workplace injuries, preventable cancers and other diseases, and even premature deaths. The president likes to cast regulation as the source of various costs to business. In fact, the source of the costs is the pollution, unsafe products, and dangerous working conditions that the regulations seek to prevent or ameliorate. By deregulating, Trump is merely pushing costs created by industry off onto average Americans, making them pay with their health and safety.
Consider the following examples:
Ozone: Smoggy days are more than an eyesore for people who work outdoors, suffer from asthma and other respiratory conditions, or simply happen to be children or senior citizens with more significant complications from exposure to pollution. For the millions of U.S. residents who fall into one or more of those groups, high concentrations of ground-level ozone (better known as smog) can be life-threatening. EPA has been slow-walking the decisions it needs to make before the Clean Air Act’s cascading series of analyses and policy decisions force pollution-reduction practices at power plants and other industrial facilities. EPA’s delay tactics may save polluters money in the near-term, but innocent victims in cities and towns across America will certainly shoulder the costs of delay over the long run.
Among the well-documented consequences of breathing smoggy air is respiratory distress and illnesses that keep people home from school and work. EPA predicts hundreds of thousands of lost days for each year that ground-level ozone pollution remains at high levels. Some families bear the brunt of this pollution, held back from achieving their full potential by repeated absences. EPA determined in 2015 that areas with the highest concentrations of ground-level ozone had a larger population of people of color than America at large.
Flood risks: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria unleashed unprecedented flooding in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, but the reality is that higher and more frequent flooding events are the new normal, thanks to global climate change. Communities everywhere need protective standards that will ensure future development and construction is resilient – that is, responsive to current and future levels of potential flooding. This is not simply a matter of protecting ourselves against the inevitable; it’s also good economics: New research indicates that every $1 invested in riverine flood or hurricane surge protection yields $7 in avoided damages down the road. That’s on top of the many lives that could be saved, thousands of cases of PTSD avoided, heirlooms preserved, and communities kept intact if managed retreat and better building standards are pursued.
But the Trump administration scuttled a multi-year and multi-stakeholder effort to update the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) last year, repealing new requirements to build and, critically, rebuild federally funded facilities above and beyond flood hazards. Their timing, although emblematic, could not have been worse, announcing this rollback just weeks before the fall hurricane season.
Flooding may seem like a great equalizer, but it is nothing of the sort. Impoverished and socially vulnerable people – especially children, the disabled, and the elderly – bear greater risk and hardship in sustaining and then recovering from flooding and its long-term impacts. Federal facilities such as military installations may have the wherewithal to deal with weakened and regressive flood standards, but in the near-certain event of major flooding in 2018, vulnerable U.S. residents dependent on public housing and other federally funded supports for healthcare, education, and transportation will bear the brunt of the added risk. Indeed, the financial burdens of a major flood would be difficult for many of us. When the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ran the numbers on the FFRMS update a couple years ago, it estimated that flood-induced displacement would cost a single adult living in a two-bedroom apartment nearly $1,500 in moving costs and lost wages. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve’s annual survey of the economic well-being of U.S. households found last year that nearly half did not have enough cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency.
Pesticides and industrial chemicals: For decades, researchers have identified strong positive correlations between wealth and health, especially in terms of chronic disease incidence and outcomes. The reasons wealth begets health are many, but one worth noting as we think about the Trump administration’s effect on social inequality is workplace chemical hazards.
During his first year in office, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt deep-sixed proposals that had been in the works to ban the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos, as well as chemical degreasers and coating removal products (trichloroethylene, N-methylpyrrolidone, and methylene chloride). Each of these regulatory proposals would have had clear benefits for thousands of workers in low- and mid-wage industries.
Banning chlorpyrifos would have protected farmworkers from a known neurotoxin, and restrictions on TCE, NMP, and MC would have eliminated both acute poisoning and chronic disease risks for furniture, bathtub, and aftermarket auto parts refinishers, graffiti removal workers, and factory workers who clean manufactured items soiled by other chemicals during the manufacturing process, among others. Reversing course on these proposed rules is bad enough on its own from an equity standpoint, but EPA went a step further recently when it announced an intention to walk back minimum age restrictions for workers who handle chlorpyrifos and other highly toxic pesticides. If that proposal comes to pass, children as young as 16 could be put in the position of having to choose between following the boss’s orders or refusing to be exposed to a chemical that could have both immediate and long-term effects on their nervous systems.
These assaults add up to a betrayal of the public trust, but that has not stopped Trump from boasting of them. Behind every overinflated exultation of costs saved for polluting industries, and beneath every gloat of pages reduced in the Federal Register, there is a story of real harms to real people, families, and communities. Maybe it’s a person who lost a job because they had to take their kid to the emergency room, or perhaps it’s a community living along the fenceline of a chemical factory who will be forced to endure several more years of breathing in their neighbor’s toxic pollution.
Trump will ignore these stories, but we must not.