Everybody recognizes the existence of poverty: Two-thirds of Americans say that the “gap between rich and everyone else has grown,” and the difference between Republicans and Democrats is minimal. But the most conservative Americans don’t want their and our public dollars used to help. About two-thirds of Tea Party Republicans favor cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps and federal housing programs.
There is a fundamental divide in America, more important than between Republicans and Democrats. It’s between Americans who want to use public assistance to help poor people live a minimally decent life, paid for by all of us through taxes, and those who don’t.
Those who don’t offer a bundle of justifications. Most Republicans believe that hard work alone is the guarantee of success; those who are poor need to work harder. Poverty is their own fault. Too many of the “poor” aren’t poor anyway; they fit the stereotype that Ronald Reagan popularized with invented stories, the “welfare queen”.
Another claim is that the richest nation on earth can’t afford it. Over three-quarters of Republicans believe that “the government today can’t afford to do much more to help the needy.”
A popular conservative line is that government assistance is bad for the poor. Rand Paul said in December that extending unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks does “a disservice to these workers.” More than 8 in 10 conservative Republicans think that public aid to the poor does more harm than good. By this argument, giving aid makes good Americans into Mitt Romney’s 47%, the moochers who vote for Democrats. Beliefs like these are concentrated in the loudest and angriest section of Republican voters.
What is the responsibility of Republican politicians? They have been pounding these ideas into the heads of anyone who will listen for decades. But their contribution has also been passive and deniable: they let the extremists of popular culture say what they don’t want to say themselves. Rush Limbaugh knows how to get people to listen far better than any elected official. Donald Trump has amassed enormous wealth and thereby media attention by creating a fascinating persona of moneymaker and clown.
Republican leaders encourage these multi-millionaires to sneer at poor people. They let these white men mock minorities. They wink when these men call women “sluts”. John Boehner’s strongest criticism of Limbaugh’s derision of Sandra Fluke, made only through his spokesman two days later, is that it was “inappropriate”. That is a green light for Limbaugh and others to keep talking.
Every time a new Republican president is elected, Limbaugh gets invited to the White House. Ronald Reagan sent Limbaugh a letter thanking him “for all you’re doing to promote Republican and conservative principles … you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country.” Conservative think tanks give him awards. Republican politicians appear on his show, where they talk to him like an old friend.
Donald Trump’s single political idea is that Barack Obama was born in Africa. Would most Republican voters also hold that belief if Republican Party leaders didn’t keep patting Trump on the back and putting their hands in his pockets? During the presidential primaries, Michele Bachmann reacted warmly to the suggestion of Trump as Vice President. Mitt Romney brought Trump into his campaign in 2012. Trump was a featured speaker at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference, as was Limbaugh before him. Now some New York Republicans in New York want Trump to run against Democrat Andrew Cuomo for governor this year.
Would Trump still have any political credence if the Republican Party itself didn’t keep doubting Obama’s birth certificate? Just a couple of months ago, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee featured a birther website in its daily web communication.
Poverty is not mostly poor people’s fault. Rich people make bad choices, too – they use drugs, abuse loved ones, have accidents, do poor work, break the laws. But their resources insulate them from the worst economic consequences.
Americans who reject public help for our poor embrace those myths which seem to justify their selfishness. Conservative leaders with ulterior motives let media extremists fan the flames of division by encouraging disdainful ideas about the poor.
If everyone followed the example of a first-year class at Illinois College, whose students interviewed Jacksonville’s homeless at the New Directions shelter, they could pierce the convenient stereotypes about American poverty. These students found out that 500 different people were warmed and sheltered over three years of operation at the Grace Methodist Church. They needed help badly, received kindness, respect, and food, and got on with their lives.
Knowledge and mercy can go together to make public policy. Rather than give millions in public funds to the richest American corporations to stay put, we need to help the poorest of our neighbors move up.
Taking Back Our Lives