In a compelling analysis, award-winning writer and author Sasha Abramsky expounds upon the 12 ways the GOP makes it challenging to thrive in 21st-century America
The past year hasn't been a good one for poor people in America.
First, the “sequester” cuts automatically sliced billions of dollars from services such as Head Start—which provides early educational opportunities to young kids from poor families—nutritional programs and job-training grants.
Then, the government shut down—over GOP opposition, in John Boehner's House of Representatives, to expanding health-care coverage to the poor. And, while it was shut down, programs like Women, Infants, and Children—also called WIC—which provides vital nutritional assistance to mothers and babies, began turning away new applicants in several states.
Now, the government is open again—but the GOP is doubling down. For this story, I tried to ponder the top 12 worst policies—ideas now in play that will push poor Americans, and in particular, poor women and kids, ever deeper into poverty—but I realize the choices are legion.
Republicans are still pushing for $40 billion of cuts to food stamps over the next decade. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and states such as Texas and North Carolina, led by GOP-run legislatures and governors, immediately responded by passing laws that make it harder for poor people to vote. These voter ID laws also make it harder for women who have changed their names because of marriage or divorce to prove that they are who they say they are.
And, despite the Affordable Care Act and the health-insurance exchanges coming online (albeit in a particularly shoddy, dysfunctional manner), for millions of Americans too poor to qualify for government subsidies, their own state governments ensured that they would still remain without access to health care by refusing to expand Medicaid, even though the feds agreed to pick up almost the entirety of this expansion’s costs.
This is in an era where, by the government’s own measure, 15 percent of Americans—roughly 50 million people—live in poverty, an age in which we no longer do a double take when we hear that nearly one in four American kids nationally—and in much of the South, one in three children—live at or below the poverty line. The failure of our political leaders to tackle this rampant hardship, and their willingness to instead propose ever-harsher austerity measures, represents a moral catastrophe.
When the U.S. House of Representatives had the chance to vote on a $10-an-hour minimum wage in March—a rate that California’s legislature has since voted to adopt, using the somewhat sensible logic that a minimum wage ought to provide workers with enough income to pay their basic bills—every single GOP congressman voted “no.”
Yet the same Republican majority supports a budget plan that would reduce the top tax rate—paid by wealthy Americans—from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, presumably further denuding the government’s ability to fund basic public infrastructure and safety-net programs.
Around the country, elected officials have been pushing proposals aimed either at humiliating those in poverty or ensuring that more people end up impoverished. These policies aren’t always enacted, but, cumulatively, they are shifting the needle rightward in how we as a nation think about, and respond to, poverty. Designing methods to hurt vulnerable people seems to have become something of a national sport these days, and not only in bastions of conservatism like Alabama and Mississippi.
Liberal California, for example, has seen its fair share of awful ideas—from Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempts to set limits on how many funded doctor’s visits Medicaid recipients could have in a given year to recurring proposals to impose strict time limits upon Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients.
In Sacramento, an anti-camping ordinance in place since 1987 renders homeless residents vulnerable to citations and tickets. (Similar/related actions have taken place in Santa Cruz as well.) “They chase the homeless from place to place,” explains Tamie Dramer, organizing director for the Sacramento Housing Alliance. “We run around pretending enforcement will somehow end homelessness.”
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t. Rather, it simply shunts these individuals from one community to the next. But the roustabout strategy makes for good sound bites for politicians.
“It’s deeper than favorite bad policies,” said Jim Wallis, president of the Washington, D.C.-based anti-poverty organization Sojourners, when asked what particularly egregious approaches to poor people and to poverty have been rolled out by state and federal politicians in recent months.
He shared this story: “I’m in the office of a U.S. senator, part of the gang working on fiscal stuff. He’s a moderate centrist. I say, ’Now, Senator, you and I could easily think of 12 senators who could sit at this table and work out a path to fiscal responsibility, couldn’t we?’
“’And we could do so while protecting the poor and vulnerable?’
“’But then all the other interests will come into this and demand their interests will be protected, and the poor will be compromised, won’t they?’
And compromised they are these days. Take note of the following list, a dirty dozen of worst public-policy ideas when it comes to America’s poor.
1. Kicking 3.5 million Americans off of food stamps
Coming in at No. 1 would have to be the current proposal to cut $40 billion from food stamps. This program is virtually the only part of the safety net that hasn't already been shredded. As a result, almost everyone in poverty in America is either on the program or eligible for it.
More than 47 million Americans use food stamps. For 4 million people, food stamps actually serve to raise family incomes above the poverty line. It is, quite simply, a buffer between economic insecurity and hunger.
But current GOP proposals would remove 3.5 million Americans, in particular, able-bodied adults, from the program, and would impose time limits on many individuals’ participation.
In 2012, when he introduced the idea of significant cuts to food stamps, Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, averred that “we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
That’s right: Depriving millions of Americans of access to food is the surest way to empty America’s overcrowded hammocks—whatever that nonsensical image is intended to convey.
It’s probably also the surest way to ensure that malnutrition re-emerges across the land.
2. Denying medical care to the working poor
An almost equally bad idea to removing food stamps from millions of people surely has to be state-level GOP opposition to allowing poor adults onto their Medicaid rolls. Despite the fact the feds will pick up all of the cost of this expansion for the first three years, and 90 percent thereafter, a slew of states, and almost the entirety of the South, have opted out of this expansion.
“The 26 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion are home to about half of the country’s population, but about 68 percent of poor, uninsured blacks and single mothers. About 60 percent of the country’s uninsured working poor are in those states. Among those excluded are about 435,000 cashiers, 341,000 cooks and 253,000 nurses’ aides,” wrote New York Times reporters Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff in October
Making it harder for poor people to qualify for medical care is a really bad idea. It results in unnecessary illnesses and deaths, and it’s expensive. Throwing millions of people into the emergency-room system instead of giving them access to primary-care doctors ends up costing everyone else—taxpayers, health-insurance companies, those buying their own insurance premiums—a fortune.
3. Raiding the food-stamps money pot
Bad idea No. 3 is another ill-starred food-stamp-reform proposal. In addition to simply axing billions of dollars from food stamps, Rep. Ryan also wants to convert the program, which is currently an entitlement, into a block grant given to the states.
How did that work during welfare reform nearly two decades ago, when Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was shifted to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and turned into a block grant in 1996? Great—if you’re looking for a pot of federal money to raid for projects that have nothing to do with the well-being of those on welfare. And not so great if you’re a poor family in need of assistance.
The program went from covering more than three out of every four families with children living in poverty to covering only one-quarter of impoverished families. Convert the food-stamps program into a block grant, the same raiding will likely take place.
4. New tough-on-poor rhetoric
At a state level, food stamps have already started being cut: Kansas' GOP governor, Sam Brownback, recently reinstituted work requirements for able-bodied, adult food-stamps recipients—requirements normally waived during periods of high unemployment for the fairly obvious reason that there is no work for these unemployed men and women to do.
Brownback didn’t get the logic: After removing 15,000 people from his state’s welfare rolls, he has now embraced an approach to food stamps that will likely remove 20,000 of his state’s 90,000 food-stamps recipients from the program. This ranks No. 4 on our list of ugly policies.
That food stamps are now in the sights of slash-and-burn conservatives speaks to the shift rightward in popular consciousness when it comes to hunger. A generation ago, while Ronald Reagan was busy denouncing “welfare queens,” who were allegedly living high on the hog off of AFDC benefits, support for food stamps remained robust. And most conservative politicians avoided targeting the program rhetorically.
These days, however, conservatives denounce President Barack Obama for being a “food-stamp president” and routinely imply—without providing proof—that the program is rife with fraud.
“They’re the same talking points we had before welfare reform,” argues Jessica Bartholow, of the Sacramento-based Western Center on Law and Poverty. “And we have a much smaller safety net now than we did 20 years ago. But the talking points are the same.”
For Bartholow, the slew of recent attacks against food stamps is part of a pattern of politicians seeking to score cheap points by showing their tough-on-poor-people bona fides via a rash of misguided proposals.
5. The Disqualification of ChapStick
Take, for example, the recent decision in Massachusetts, backed by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, to outlaw the purchase of cosmetics using TANF benefits. It sounds good: Why should we allow women on welfare to spend our tax dollars dolling themselves up?
But dig deeper, and the implications are horrendous, which is why this comes in at bad idea No. 5.
For instance, should sunscreen be considered a “cosmetic”? Well, it’s often sold in the cosmetics aisle of a store, but its use is more akin to a medicine: Use it well, and you can limit your risk of skin cancer; don’t use it, and you are more likely to end up with the disease. If your skin is bad, and you go for a job interview—even though employers aren’t legally allowed to discriminate on the basis of looks in practice—a woman with no makeup and with poor skin may well be at a disadvantage in the search for work.
If you want to get that welfare recipient off of public assistance and into employment, making it more difficult for them to present themselves well at an interview seems counterproductive.
Is deodorant a cosmetic? Quite possibly. But, again, who wants to go for a job interview on a humid summer day in Massachusetts with pits sweating? While the legislation eventually excluded deodorant from the list of banned items, it’s entirely likely businesses will still err on the side of caution and refuse to sell deodorant to welfare customers. Is ChapStick a cosmetic? Yes, it is. But it also is necessary for stopping lips from blistering.
6. Drug testing unemployed Americans
Taking away ChapSticks and deodorant is silly. But not nearly as silly as looking for ways to remove unemployment benefits from unemployed people, thus taking away what little remaining financial security their families have.
But, increasingly, states are looking to do just this. Florida attempts to do wholesale drug testing, not based on any reasonable suspicions, for all unemployment-insurance claimants. Taking away a family’s income source because mom or pop smokes pot occasionally might not make a whole lot of economic sense, but it plays into the tough-on-crime, tough-on-the-poor approach all too common in Florida—a state with nearly a million disenfranchised ex-felons.
Florida tried the same catchall drug-testing trick with TANF recipients in 2011—but the courts ordered it to stop the practice.
In Utah, the courts haven’t intervened, since the state tests only people it has a “reasonable suspicion” are using drugs—and it offers treatment, accompanied by restored benefits to users. Not that this makes Utah’s policy fiscally sensible: Over the last year, according to ThinkProgress, it has spent more than $30,000 drug testing welfare applicants. How many people did it catch and remove from the welfare rolls? Twelve.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Florida to stop drug testing unemployment-benefits applicants. But, despite their earlier ruling, there’s no guarantee that, this time around, the courts will intervene. After all, Congress put its imprimatur on this policy when, at the height of the recession, Democrats who wanted to extend unemployment benefits and Republicans who didn’t reached a compromise: Republicans agreed to extend the benefits, but only in exchange for Democrats agreeing to language being inserted into the legislation that would allow (though not require) states to drug test applicants. In the wake of this, Florida and several other states, mainly in the South, rushed to set up drug-testing protocols. This is clearly, a very bad idea. We’re provisionally placing it at No. 6, but are willing to move it higher up in our ranks should the courts not strike it down.
7. GOP plan to tighten unemployment benefits
Unemployment benefits are up for extension again in December. This time around, if current tactics during the government shutdown and debt ceiling are any indication of GOP thinking, it's likely that the Republican House won't even begin to negotiate.
If the benefits aren’t extended, “they risk pulling the rug out from under a large number of Californians [and] Americans still struggling to find employment, or the amount and quality of employment they desire,” worried Chris Hoene, of the California Budget Project.
How can the job market be stimulated enough to absorb millions of unemployed Americans? A number of Republicans, including Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have called for repealing the minimum wage. State legislators in Maine and elsewhere have also called for huge rollbacks in child-labor laws, allowing kids to be employed at less-than-minimum-wage rates. Reduce wages enough, the argument goes, and America will return to a golden age of full employment (and, SN&R suspects, sweatshops, wholesale exploitation of children and so on). Collectively, we award this seventh position in our list of horrors.
8. Sacramento's war against affordable housing
Then, at No. 8, there's the proposal put forward in 2011 by Rep. Ryan and his confreres to cut an astounding $5.7 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Affordable Housing program, at a time when the country is experiencing massive increases in homelessness in the wake of the bursting of the housing-market bubble. It hasn't been implemented, but the government's automatic budget cuts and other cuts have hugely impacted affordable-housing budgets.
Linked in with this national effort to put affordable housing out of the reach of millions of Americans are a bunch of misguided local policies.
For instance, Sacramento County’s recent decision to roll back its groundbreaking Affordable Housing Ordinance: It mandated that when developers build houses, they set aside 15 percent of them for affordable-housing units, including a portion for those just below median income, another portion for those in deep poverty, plus a segment for people in extreme poverty (those at or below 30 percent of the area’s median income).
The new system contains no affordable-housing requirements. “It’ll trickle down to housing instability and lead to more homelessness,” said Dramer. “We’re already not meeting our needs with the ordinance, let alone without it.”
9. Cuts to college financial aid
Let's not leave out the GOP plan from last year to reduce Pell Grant eligibility. It would have removed 1 million people from the program over a decade, reduced spending by $170 billion over that 10-year period, and allowed the interest rates payable on student loans to soar. We're declaring this to be bad idea No. 9.
If it stood a snowball’s chance in hell of being implemented, we’d have likely put it higher up. But this is, quite simply, empty-gesture politics. It won’t become the law of the land anytime soon. It does, however, make politicians look tough by allowing them to rhetorically beat up on the poor.
“The most toxic things politicians do is use very dehumanizing language to talk about the poor,” explains Bartholow.
10. Denial of pregnancy services to homeless women
During the government shutdown, Bartholow's organization had already documented how several states stopped accepting new applicants into their WIC programs—meaning that low-income infants weren't getting enough milk and other vital nutrition. Arizona had for a few days abruptly stopped its TANF program. And many HeadStart centers in Florida and elsewhere had shuttered their doors.
Yet a number of tea party congressmen were taking to the airwaves to explain how the shutdown was no big deal, how things were pretty much humming along and how this all showed that we didn’t need a big government.
For Bartholow, it spoke to the increasing invisibility of America’s poor, as well as a growing empathy gap between the political classes and those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
In California, for example, the GOP had been fighting a rear-guard action for several years in opposition to state Sen. Holly Mitchell’s proposal to expand specialized shelter services for pregnant homeless women during the first two trimesters of their pregnancy.
Under existing law, women in the early months of pregnancy can stay in regular homeless shelters, but not until their third trimester do they qualify for an additional cash grant and CalWORKs Homeless Assistance.
For Bartholow, that makes no sense, since “all of the brain development [of the fetus] has already happened by then.”
Ultimately, homeless teens were granted access to the early pregnancy services—but homeless women over the age of 18 were not.
11. Budget cuts to reproductive and rape-crisis centers
In the penultimate spot on this list, comes Texas' defunding of Planned Parenthood—which, in addition to providing access to abortions, also provides vital family-planning and screening services to poor women, many of whom (in a state where one in four residents have no insurance) have no other access to such health-care services. And the proposal (so far unsuccessful) by conservatives in Ohio to defund rape-crisis centers that so much as mention to their clients that abortion is an option, should they have become pregnant after being raped.
12. A bevy of GOP immigration proposals
And at No. 12, here’s to the bungling of several other proposals, many of them put up as “solutions” to tackle the numbers of people who have emigrated to the United States illegally.
Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 achieved notoriety for essentially empowering local cops to demand residency papers of anyone who they deemed looked “illegal.” Somehow, giving Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph “Joe” Arpaio’s officers this sort of power doesn’t strike us as a particularly sensible thing to do. After all, Arpaio is the guy who repopularized the chain gang and who once made his male jail inmates parade around in pink underwear, simply to humiliate them.
Georgia’s House Bill 87 also gives local law enforcement powers to intervene in what has, historically, been an immigration issue policed by federal agencies. Such local interventions were also embraced by the little town of Hazleton, Penn., which went so far as to pass a local ordinance that empowered the city to levy huge fines on landlords who rented homes to undocumented immigrants. That law was struck down by the courts in 2010.
But where Hazleton failed, other locales have stepped in. Around the country, there has been a rash of local and state attempts to crack down on immigrants living here without legal permission, fueled by conservative politicians such as North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, who believes the United States is being “invaded” by immigrants.
Others have called for building a fence along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border, for mass deportations and for denying citizenship to the U.S.-born children of such immigrants.
In reality, they won’t rid the country of these kinds of immigrants, but they do have the potential to push millions of people ever further into the shadows, making them more vulnerable to exploitation, more impoverished, even less likely to have access to basic services, and even more likely to end up hungry, homeless and sick.
All of these and more are the exact wrong way to deal with a poverty epidemic that condemns one in six Americans to daily insecurity, angst and want. No other modern, wealthy democracy has poverty numbers approaching America’s. No other electorate would tolerate such cascading levels of inequity.
Anti-poverty approaches should aim to raise people out of poverty—and to stop so many people from becoming impoverished in the first place—not to punish those who happen to be trapped in its vise.
But in 21st-century America, that is not what’s happening.
Comment on this article below. Learn more about Sasha Abramsky at sashaabramsky.com.
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