Last week I attended the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association annual brunch at the Springfield Hilton. I know what the Republicans said in their presidential debate. I wanted to hear what Democrats say as we gather steam for election year 2016.
People handed me stickers for candidates; candidates wandered around shaking hands. Then came two and half hours of speeches. Political speeches tend to sound alike. But they tell you what concerns the speaker most, what they want to accomplish with your vote. At the Democrats’ brunch, I heard over and over again the imperative to help “the most vulnerable” in our society.
Susana Mendoza, the City Clerk of Chicago who is running for Illinois Comptroller, worried about how the current budget crisis would lead to cutbacks at Illinois social service agencies, hurting “the most vulnerable”. Mike Frerichs, the Illinois Treasurer, told us what he is proud of since he barely won election in 2014: financial measures to help the poor, like college savings accounts, retirement plans, and the Able Act, helping families with a disabled dependent. He also talked about “the most vulnerable”.
Four Democrats are running for the US Senate seat held by Republican Mark Kirk. In their brief speeches, they all spoke of the imperative of helping poorer people. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth said, “We have to be there for the voiceless. We are better off as Americans when we don’t leave anyone behind.” Richard Boykin, Cook County Commissioner, will advocate for “those who have been left out”. Andrea Zopp gave us the image of “people working hard to pull themselves out of poverty”.
Napoleon Harris went to school with the same clothes every day, before his talent carried him to an NFL career and now to the Illinois Statehouse. His life demonstrates that getting out of poverty requires effort by many individuals, which is what Republicans focus on. But Harris also stressed the importance of collective help from the surrounding society.
Republican candidates don’t propose to help people in poverty, because Republican voters believe poverty is poor people’s own fault.
The contrast between what these Democrats said and what Republican presidential candidates say about poverty is striking. Little has changed since Mitt Romney said that 47% of voters “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Only one of the ten men at the Republican debate, Ohio Governor John Kasich, discussed poor Americans at all. For Republicans, poor people are mainly targets of abuse, not help. Donald Trump said in June that poor people “sit back and say we’re not going to do anything. They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.” Jeb Bush has criticized poor families, proposing a model he doesn’t think they follow: “A loving family taking care of their children in a traditional marriage will create the chance to break out of poverty far better, far better than any of the government programs that we can create”. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker blocked the expansion of Medicaid in his state, asking, “Why is more people on Medicaid a good thing?” The health insurance plan he outlined in the debate to replace Obamacare would cut subsidies to poor people.
There is nothing new about Republicans blaming the poor for their own predicament. Long before Ronald Reagan used stories about welfare fraud to characterize poor people in America, conservatives created a distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Republican candidates don’t propose to help people in poverty, because Republican voters believe poverty is poor people’s own fault. 51% of Republicans in a 2014 Pew survey thought that poverty is caused by “lack of effort”. Republican politicians helped to create the image of the poor as undeserving. Now Republican voters demand it. Economic data, census surveys, or social scientific research are not useful here.
The Republican unwillingness to use government resources to help the poor is just what the richest people want. That’s one reason why donations of $1 million or more have benefitted Republican candidates 12 times as much as Democratic candidates.
I don’t feel that way. Conservatives imagine all kinds of explanations for why I might not think the poor are undeserving: I’m a liberal, a socialist, a communist, a Jew, a New Yorker, a college professor. I would blame my parents. They managed to communicate two ideas. It was important to look upwards, to try for better, and to work for that. Equally important was to look down the scale of success, but not to look down on less successful people. I learned from them to see how the system of power and wealth promulgates the idea that those who don’t have it don’t deserve it.
I wouldn’t have been able to hold down a brunch with the Republican presidential candidates. When Republicans turn their evil eye on the poor, I get sick. The Democrats made me feel at home. They see the system and want change it. We can argue about how much. But we won’t argue that the poor deserve what they get.
It doesn’t do Democrats any good to advocate for the poor. They don’t make the giant political contributions that keep the Republican machine going. They don’t vote as often as the people who make those contributions. They don’t staff the offices of lobbyists in Washington. They don’t hobnob with candidates at fancy dinners. There is no quid pro quo for helping “the most vulnerable”, except the feeling that it’s the right thing to do.
Taking Back Our Lives