Donald Trump’s expected pick of Andy Puzder, who owns restaurant chains and opposes an increase in the minimum wage, as Labour Secretary further confirms the president-elect’s determination to impose the most conservative reforms to social programs since the days of Ronald Reagan.

And it is poorer African Americans living in inner cities who will feel the sharp edge of that agenda.

“There’s a lot to be concerned about,” according to Michele Jawando, a social-justice advocate at the Washington-based Center for American Progress. She is particularly concerned about the new administration’s emphasis on privatization and deregulation. “We are entering into an unprecedented moment.”

Others are more positive. “I am very hopeful and optimistic,” says James Carr, a professor of urban studies at Detroit’s Wayne State University, who believes Mr. Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure program could prove transformative for poorer African Americans. “I say let’s give him a chance.”

Mr. Puzder, if he is confirmed, would join a Trump cabinet united in its determination to weaken the role of the federal government in social policy. The owner of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains chafes at government regulations, especially in health care.

He would find common cause with Representative Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee for health secretary, who wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which brought health insurance to millions who lacked it. Although there are many competing alternatives, the Republicans intend to emphasize choice and the private sector, with government assistance for those who need it.

Betsy DeVos, the incoming education secretary, is an advocate of vouchers – which allow parents to choose whichever school they want for their children, with government money following that choice – and charter schools, by which government funds support privately incorporated schools.

Margaret Simms, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, which studies urban issues from a progressive perspective, points out that vouchers and charter schools may be of little help to impoverished African Americans in inner cities who have no practical alternative to whatever school is close at hand.

But Prof. Carr responds: “It’s hard for public schools to get any worse than they are right now.”

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who is Mr. Trump’s choice for housing secretary, embraces an up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that is unlikely to include expanding, or even preserving, existing housing supports.

And Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney-general, has been criticized by civil-liberties advocates for what they consider his regressive views on the rights of women, sexual minorities and African Americans.

“What have you got to lose?” Donald Trump asked black voters during the election campaign, and – despite loud support for his campaign from white supremacists – 8 per cent of them chose the Republican nominee, according to exit polls – a dismal number, but in the same ballpark as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and better than Mitt Romney’s 6 per cent.

In noting that almost one African American in 10 voted for Mr. Trump, it’s important to note also the changes to the black experience in the United States. About half of all African Americans now belong to the middle or upper classes. Postsecondary enrolment for African Americans has more than doubled in the past two decades.

Nonetheless, the poverty rate for black Americans remains three times that for white Americans. And because of past and present discrimination, they are much less likely to own their own homes, which is why blacks have, on average, only one-seventh the net wealth of whites.

There has been a sea change in the debate over poverty issues among conservatives in recent years. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has made the fight against poverty one of his key priorities.

“He has shifted the tone of how Republicans speak about poverty,” observes Angela Rachidi, who studies poverty issues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And it’s not just ‘let’s make cuts’ and ‘people are lazy.’ It’s about ‘it’s okay to invest federal dollars into poor populations, we just have to do it the right way, in an effective way, so that people can actually help themselves, rather than government just coming in to save everybody.’”

Given Mr. Ryan’s influence in Congress, the Wisconsin representative’s anti-poverty plan might well emerge as the Trump administration’s anti-poverty plan. That plan envisions making work a requirement for social support while eliminating welfare clawbacks for people who find work; encouraging individual choice through voucher programs; focusing on programs, especially those at the local level, with a proven record of success, and increasing funding to those who fall into need, while reducing funding over time.

Such programs have a mixed record of success in places where they have been tried previously, such as Ontario in the 1990s under Conservative Premier Mike Harris. While they do encourage people to get off welfare and into the work force, they aren’t adequate for those with disabilities or dependencies and ignore systemic barriers to work that racial minorities often face.

For example, infrastructure programs may provide well-paying jobs in construction, but African Americans are often discriminated against in hiring, and there are few jobs for women.

Every incoming administration arrives with a host of priorities, which are quickly pared down in the face of congressional resistance, available resources or the press of events.

“We will have to see if the full panoply of Trump policies tends to be as conservative as it might today appear,” Ms. Simms says.

Whatever those priorities might be, Ms. Jawando remains fearful of the impact on African Americans of a businessman-turned-president who was cited for discrimination in his early days as a landlord, while Prof. Carr looks forward to new opportunities for African Americans to find steady jobs and market-based home ownership.

It’s an open question how much the urban poor, especially poor African Americans, really do have to lose, or gain, from a President Trump.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Dec. 08, 2016 9:32PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Dec. 08, 2016 9:35PM EST