By Robert Mann
It’s a common delusion among some wealthy people that their success is a product of their industry and ingenuity. They regard poverty, therefore, as a consequence of indolence and ignorance. As the British journalist Walter Bagehot once observed, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people; it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”
I can understand the indifference of so many wealthy folks, particularly Republican politicians, toward the poor. What I don’t comprehend, however, is their eagerness to vilify, ridicule and punish poverty.
That’s what Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback did recently when he opposed the expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program that supports health care for low-income families. Brownback explained he vetoed the bill “because it fails to serve the truly vulnerable before the able-bodied [and] lacks work requirements to help able-bodied Kansans escape poverty.” In 2013, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed a similar slur against the poor as he opposed Medicaid expansion.
To the average person, Brownback’s and Jindal’s reasoning might make sense. Doesn’t giving health care to poor people make them reluctant to find a job with health insurance? It might, if most of those who would benefit were unemployed, which they are not.
By framing his opposition around the notion that the poor are shiftless moochers whose lethargy is to blame for their financial woes, Brownback, Jindal and others who parrot this reasoning are slandering those who live in poverty.
A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that the vast majority of Medicaid recipients (almost 80 percent) belong to working households. Sixty percent have jobs. Of those not working, all but 3 percent are sick, disabled, students, family caregivers, retired or those who can’t find work.
Medicaid expansion rewards work. In most states, those most in need of Medicaid’s expanded coverage earn too much to qualify for the existing Medicaid program, but too little to claim insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The Medicaid debate is but one front in a conservative war against the poor who, many Republicans want you to believe, are lazy bums who need tough love far more than your charity. If you buy into this caricature, you’ve been conned.
Here’s the dirty secret the servants of the rich don’t want you to learn: Many poor people work long hours in low-wage jobs. “Among the poor between 18 and 64 who are not disabled or in school in 2014,” the Center for Poverty Research at the University California, Davis, reports, “51.8 percent worked for part of the previous year.”
It’s not that poor people are lazy; it’s often that their enormous industry is so rarely rewarded with a living wage. The game is rigged against them in so many ways.
State and local governments tax them at rates two and three times that of the wealthy. They often pay more interest for car loans, higher premiums for auto insurance and inflated fees for checking accounts. In Louisiana and elsewhere, unpaid court fees can get them tossed into jail, whereupon they often lose their jobs. In Arkansas, it’s a criminal offense to miss a rent payment.
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