SCHNEIDER: The problem with seeing the poor as 'undeserving'

June 10, 2017

It is a tale of two worlds: those who are making it and those who are not.

And those who are not are looked down upon as the “undeserving poor.”

“There was little sympathy for those who were struggling. Poverty was seen as part of the natural order of things. You were either born poor or you fell into poverty because of your own moral failings. If you were poor, you simply had to work harder or endure.”

Those words in the fascinating PBS series “Victorian Slum House” describe historic British attitudes, but as I heard them, I thought not of how much has changed since the late 1800s, but how little.

Some in Congress apparently think those who need Medicaid health benefits or SNAP food benefits are the “undeserving poor.”

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, argued against Obamacare rules that require insurance companies to cover those with pre-existing conditions rather than shuttling them off to so-called “high-risk pools.” Those sick people with their higher health costs should “contribute more to the insurance pool,” Brooks said. “That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives. They’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy.”

The implication? Those who are sick have themselves to blame. Tell that to the parents of a child with a congenital illness. Tell that to a woman who has breast cancer. Tell that to me—whose daughter developed juvenile diabetes as a child. Yes, Mo, she leads a good life.

Brooks is hardly alone.

Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, complained that “there is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

So those who have eaten that large order of fries and a double-bacon cheeseburger should be turned away from the ER if they have a heart attack?

And Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, argued the poor and sick have to make a choice between health care and “getting that new iPhone that they just love.”

The $827 Amazon currently charges for an Apple iPhone 7 will cover a month (or less) of health insurance. It won’t come close to covering the cost of a hospital stay or, in some cases, a single prescription drug if you don’t have insurance.

Yet the American Health Care Act the U.S. House shoved over to a reluctant and divided Senate leaves millions uninsured, with Medicaid slashed and those with pre-existing conditions facing sharply higher premiums.

Then there is the food stamp program, SNAP, for which the Trump administration is proposing additional work requirements. Many people—and it seems President Trump and his budget director are among them—don’t realize the program has had work requirements since it was reformed in the 1990s.

Two-thirds of those who receive food assistance are children, senior citizens or the disabled who cannot work. Others are working yet don’t make enough to sustain their families. And during periods like the recession that hit in 2008, jobs are scarce, layoffs common and food stamps necessary for families who never believed they would need them.

These proposed cuts to Medicaid and food programs—even to Meals on Wheels for the elderly—are being made both nationally and in the states in the name of deficit reduction and tax cuts for the wealthy. They, you see, are “the job creators”—the deserving wealthy.

In “Victorian Slum House,” we are told that “the belief that the poor have only themselves to blame was so strongly held that, during the 1870s, a campaign was led to cut poor relief.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.•


Schneider covered Indiana government and politics for The Indianapolis Star for more than 20 years. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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