The unworthy poor

Cross-posted on The Obama Diary.


According to Think Progress, the state of Tennessee is prepared to pass a law that ties welfare benefits to the academic achievement of recipients’ children. As the article states:
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.
If one does a search on Google News for “drug testing for welfare”, one learns that at least 36 states have passed or introduced legislation requiring drug testing for welfare applicants. (The GOP controlled House is also mulling similar legislation.) The first state to do so was Florida. The ACLU took the state to court and had the law blocked; its future is uncertain. But the purported purpose of the law—to save money—didn’t quite achieve its goal.
In the four months that Florida’s law was in place, the state drug tested 4,086 TANF applicants. A mere 108 individuals tested positive. To put it another way, only 2.6 percent of applicants tested positive for illegal drugs — a rate more than three times lower than the 8.13 percent of all Floridians, age 12 and up, estimated by the federal government to use illegal drugs. Now might be a good time to remind folks that in the debate over the bill, Gov. Rick Scott argued that this law was necessary because, he said, welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than the general population.
None of these laws have been passed or proposed with an eye towards helping welfare recipients get off the dole and move into work. The case of Florida shows that the stated purpose has no relation to reality. But what these laws in fact do is reinforce one of the Right’s favorite bogeymen: the unworthy poor, the welfare queens, the takers leeching off the makers.

And, to a degree, it’s working. Polling in states proposing such measures show overwhelming support for making welfare recipients’ lives as onerous as possible. Virginians support testing by 75%; Georgians by 64%. (These polls were taken shortly after Florida introduced its law.)

The real purpose of these laws is to serve the only tactic which the Right uses: divide and conquer. It’s a means to attain and maintain political power, setting what’s left of the hard-pressed middle class against the poor. And make no mistake: although all this legislation is aimed at “welfare cheats”, the real targets are the American poor, made so by decades of de-industrialization which sent well-paying, blue collar jobs off to low-wage countries; jobs which have been replaced by far lower earning service sector occupations.

The Right has to keep juggling these distractions; if the remaining middle class and the poor ever joined together to aim their ire at the true cause of their problems, the Right and its backers among the 1% would be swept away in a tidal wave of anger. We are starting to see this in the indebted countries of Europe, where citizens protest daily against the austerity measures imposed from Brussels and Berlin. China is starting to experience labor unrest at a level which might threaten the one-party state. The Right in this country has to create a target at which the middle class can direct its anger, fighting over crumbs rather than realizing that there is an entire pie held out of view in very few hands.

The sheer lack of empathy built up by the Right and its enablers in the media since the days of Ronald Reagan has been one of its greatest successes. When homelessness exploded in the 1980′s, it wasn’t long before there were news reports of “compassion fatigue”, where a middle class beginning to feel the effects of conservative economics just couldn’t care about those falling through the gaping holes in the safety net. The steady drumbeat castigating the unworthy poor built up and reached a crescendo in the welfare “reforms” of the 1990′s. Its maintained that plateau, as the middle class shrinks and is made more resentful of the undeserving. This resentment, stoked by the Right, is one of the few things still allowing it to hold onto the power it has. If that ever dissipates, its end will come all the quicker.

I’m not arguing that welfare is a “good” thing. It is, at best, necessary. But by conflating welfare recipients with the broader working poor, the Right is cynically engaging in the “class warfare” it claims to abhor. All the proposed or enacted legislation exists merely to tar all the poor, and set the middle class against them.

President Obama’s jobs program will never pass this Congress, for the mere fact that it would put millions of people back to work, including welfare recipients. The Right can’t have that. And the Right doesn’t actually want to get rid of welfare; the social explosion would be deafening. It’s fine with keeping welfare, but only so as to stigmatize its recipients.

The only thing which will ameliorate welfare is to get people back to work. That’s happening, but slower than we would want. As long as Republicans control the House, the recovery will be threatened. We have to make sure that in 2014 quite a few of those House Republicans from districts which Obama won join the unemployment line. They should experience what their policies have worsened.


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