By George E. Curry
In the 1960s, we had the War on Poverty. In 2011, we’re now seeing a War on People Who Live in Poverty.
One of the most callous examples of this occurred on – you guessed it – Fox News. Charles Payne, in a business segment, acknowledged that anti-poverty programs, food stamps, and unemployment insurance were “good programs”, but then went on to attack recipients of those programs.
“I think the real narrative here, though, is that people aren’t embarrassed by it,” Payne said. “People aren’t ashamed by it. In other words, there was a time when people were embarrassed to be on food stamps; there was a time when people were embarrassed to be on unemployment for six months, let alone demanding to be on for more than two years… No longer is the man being told to look in the mirror and cast down a judgment on himself; it’s someone else’s fault. So, food stamps, unemployment, all this stuff is something that they probably earned in some indirect way.”
The host of the business show, Stuart Varney, called food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit “a form of welfare, income redistribution” benefiting people with an “entitlement mentality.”
Varney and Payne, in effect, dismissed the findings by the National Bureau of Economic Research that showed that such programs keep 1 in 6 Americans out of poverty, mostly the elderly, the disabled, and the working poor. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, without those programs, the poverty rate would double.
As states continue to struggle to balance their budgets, as required by their constitutions, some state lawmakers are directing their anger at the poor.
In Kentucky, a Republican state representative has introduced a bill that, if passed, would require random drug testing for all adults receiving welfare, food stamps or Medicaid.
Rep. Lonnie Napier, of Lancaster, Ky., introduced Kentucky House Bill 208 that would immediately terminate benefits to recipients who fail a drug test. He told the Huffington Post, “This program is gonna save us a lot of money, because there’s gonna be a lot of people showing up on illegal drugs and they will lose their assistance.”
There is no evidence that people benefiting from antipoverty programs are any more prone to becoming drug addicts than those who do not receive such aid. Professor Harold Pollack, of the University of Chicago, pointed out that Michigan implemented a mandatory drug testing program 10 years ago at three of its welfare offices. Of the 258 welfare applicants tested, only 21 tested positive for illegal drugs. Of the 21 failing, 18 tested positive for marijuana.
Newt Gingrich, who is testing the GOP presidential waters, has tried to indirectly inject race into his campaign. Speaking to a group of Republicans in his home state of Georgia, he said: “President Obama is the most successful food stamp president in American history. I would like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history.”
When asked about the comment on Meet the Press, Gingrich denied his comment contained racial overtones. He asserted, “…I have never said anything about President Obama which is racist.”
Perhaps not overtly, but certainly covertly. That point was not lost on Adam Serwer of the Washington Post. “I don’t think Gingrich lacks the sophistication to understand how it sounds when he calls for poll tests and refers to the first black president as ‘the food stamp president,’” Serwer wrote. “…He gets to play the victim of a politically correct world where liberals try to stifle all criticism of Obama by characterizing any such criticism as racism. His dog whistle is thus amplified by enraged liberals, while conservatives get to play up their own form of racial grievance politics.”
Nearly 12 percent of Americans are beneficiaries of the Food Stamp program – 28 percent of Blacks, 15 percent of Latinos, and eight percent of Whites.
Recipients, who are at or below the poverty line, are given a plastic card to purchase food, seeds, and food plants. The card cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, paper goods or pet food. Despite those restrictions, the users of food stamps are still used as a political football.
“If people buy fresh vegetables or other relatively expensive though nutritious foods, they are considered to be living high on the hog at the taxpayers’ expense,” the New York Times observed in 2009. “But if they buy cheap foods like hot dogs they are criticized for poor health habits.”
Many people who were quick to criticize the Food Stamp program in the past are now embracing it after they have lost their job. More than 36 million people are food stamp recipients, with an additional 15 million eligible for enrollment.
“This is the most urgent time for our feeding program in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” Under Secretary of Agriculture Kevin Concannon told the New York Times. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”
And, those hungry people – many of them facing unemployment for the first time in their adult life – should not be stigmatized by candidates for public office seeking to score cheap political points.