Lazy politicians’ easy way out: Blame the poor

Barbara Shelly

South Carolina’s lieutenant governor has likened government assistance to poor people to the feeding of stray animals.

In each case, the handouts will cause recipients to “breed,” Andre Bauer told a conservative audience, because “they don’t know any better.”

Bauer’s remark could be chalked up as just another bizarre pronouncement by another nutty Palmetto State politician. They’re having quite a run of the mouths down there.

But wait. It’s not just South Carolina.

Missouri legislator Cynthia Davis last year denounced summer nutrition programs for impoverished children.

“Who created a new rule that says government must make up for any lack at home?” Davis asked in a newsletter. “The problem of childhood obesity has been cited as one of the most rapidly growing health problems in America. People who are struggling with lack of food usually do not have an obesity problem.”

Besides revealing herself as heartless, Davis had her facts wrong. Food insecurity is linked to obesity. Researchers theorize that people who lack steady access to nutritious food consume too much cheap, high-calorie, high-fat food.

It would be nice to discount Davis’ rant as another wacky pronouncement by the Republican from O’Fallon, Mo. But this business of demonizing the poor isn’t limited to a few screwy public figures. It is rampant in political debate and in public policy.

We see it in attempts to make recipients of government aid take drug tests. Missouri lawmakers have filed no fewer than five bills this session demanding tests for at least some aid recipients.

We saw the poor demonized last year in Missouri when Republican members of the House shouted down a proposal to increase Medicaid eligibility limits to 50 percent of the poverty level, using extra taxes that Missouri hospitals volunteered to pay the state.

“Plunderers,” one House member called the would-be recipients, while others denounced their lack of “initiative.”

Who are these people? Mostly single parents who earn less than $11,025 a year for a family of four.

The way lawmakers talked, you’d think Bernie Madoff had spawned a legion of offspring to pull off a giant scam on the people.

In fact, most of them are the working poor. They prepare and serve our food, clean our offices and direct us to the proper aisle in the discount stores.

Stories abound of their conniving, lazy ways. Some are doubtlessly true. Some mothers who receive public assistance have substance abuse problems. Some give birth to children just so they can stay on aid.

But much more typical are the stories politicians don’t tell when they demonize the poor. The mother who receives a pink slip because she’s missed too much work waiting at the free health clinic to deal with her child’s asthma. The family knocked deeper into debt with every unplanned car repair or broken furnace.

South Carolina’s Bauer, who, it turns out, benefited from free school lunch programs when he was a kid, blathered on about parents who receive similar aid and don’t attend parent-teacher conferences or PTA meetings. Never mind that low-wage employers often won’t give workers time off to attend school functions.

Davis of Missouri opined that low-income parents have a responsibility to serve their children nutritious meals. Very true, but has she tried taking multiple buses to get to and from the supermarket because they’re few and far between in urban neighborhoods?

Our goal should indeed be to have as few people as possible on public assistance. But you don’t get there by demonizing the poor or giving them drug tests. You get there by providing health care, child care subsidies and other supports that help people become self-sufficient. There’s far too little discussion about that in the hallways of power these days.

The above column was originally published Feb. 1 by McClatchy Newspapers. Content was made available my MCTCampus.