As it increases its hold on the American political system, the right is gradually unmasking its contempt for the poor.
That “unmasking” is behind two recent bills that caught the internet’s attention this week. Kansas and Missouri’s legislatures are working to target the social services provided to the state’s welfare recipients, limiting how people on welfare can use their assistance. In Missouri, a bill awaits Gov. Sam Brownback’s approval that would ban soda, energy drinks, cookies, and chips. Curtailing spending on snacks and soft drinks might be defensible from a public health angle (former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg would be a fan), but the state is also targeting steak and seafood—which speaks, ironically, less to concerns about welfare and more about policing what poor people do.
If the latter point is not clear to you, Kansas is going further: The state plans to limit not only the amount of money that TANF recipients can withdraw from their benefit card each day but also the types of entertainments they’re allowed to enjoy while doing so. As well as prohibiting visiting swimming pools, gambling or getting tattoos, Kansans on welfare would not be able to spend money at a “theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”
In Kansas, this bill is tied to a widespread rollback in the state’s welfare program. From 2011 to 2015, the number of Kansans receiving TANF benefits has plummeted from 38,000 to 15,000; if you think that’s a victory for the war on poverty, think again. According to Kansas Action for Children, the number of children living in poverty has skyrocketed over the same period. Further statistics from the organization show that in 2012, 19 percent of children in the state were living below the poverty line, with a slim majority of schoolchildren statewide receiving free or reduced lunches based on need. That problem is particularly pronounced in densely-settled rural areas, according to KAC, where 60.15 percent of kids receive lunch assistance.
While few—aside from the one-percenter who didn’t want to give Halloween candy to poor kids—would fault a pre-teen for eating a free white bread sandwich on a grassy knoll, our society has a more difficult time extending empathy to their parents. An anonymous DataLounge post from 2013 sums up our feelings about the impoverished nicely. Titled “I HATE POOR PEOPLE,” the original poster laments: “Poverty is the only social disease a person can fix on their own. Why do they insist on making their plight my problem?”
In a 2012 essay for the Guardian, Suzanne Moore points out that the poor are often treated like addicts, the “author of their own misfortune.” “Poverty is self-inflicted,” Moore bitingly writes. “All these hopeless people: Where do they all come from?” Statistics show there’s an answer for that—it’s a product of the growing divide when it comes to wealth and privilege in modern America.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s self-titled economics program began to drastically rollback social programs established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Between 1979 and 2012, workers’ wages have stagnated...rising just 5 percent,” reports AlterNet’s Leo Gerard. “Workers are more productive. Their labor is creating record profits. But they’re not benefitting.” Who does benefit? In 2013, EPI.org reported that the average CEO made 295 times the average worker, although it’s unlikely that they did 295 times the work. In 1978, that figure was just 29.9.
As Barbara Ehrenreich memorably argued in the seminal Nickel and Dimed, it’s those low-wage workers who are essentially paying for everyone else’s prosperity with their cheap labor:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.
But despite those noble sacrifices, our view of the poor, particularly those who receive public assistance, fails to be nearly as generous. According to Joshua Holland, the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy, much of that has to do with two staples of stereotypes about American poverty: “the infamous, Cadillac-driving welfare queen and the ‘strapping young buck’ who lived large on T-bone steaks purchased with food stamps.” These images were popularized by Reagan in his famous arguments against “nanny state,” which worked to blame those less unfortunate for their place in the American caste system of wealth.
Instead of Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Reagan waged a war on the poor. As Affluence and Influence author Martin Gillens explains, demonizing people of color was key in shifting the rhetoric around poverty. “The media started to portray those programs much more negatively as being abused by people who didn’t really need them, as being inefficient and so on,” Gillens argues. “And it’s really right at that time—and it’s a very dramatic shift in the media portrayal—that the imagery shifts from poor white people, positively portrayed, to poor black people, negatively portrayed.”
Whereas the 1920s had the Joads of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to put a face on the saintly white poor, struggling with dignity, Sirk’s Sarah Jane shows there’s little sympathy for black folks in America. Both of Reagan’s famous examples were implicitly coded as black, and even a sympathetic 1996 cover from the liberal magazine The New Republic portrayed the welfare mother as African-American, smoking a cigarette while her infant nurses on bottled milk beside her. For the mag, it might have ironically commented upon an unfortunate cliché, but for others, it was simply a representation of the truth.
Although Americans don’t like the impoverished in general, the cases of Walter Scott and Eric Garner show it's particularly easy to deny the black poor humanity. During the infamous 2014 water shutdowns in Detroit, Common Dreams’ Kim Redigan spoke to waiters who worked downtown, and she heard a common refrain: “If they can’t pay their bills, too bad.” Instead of relying on the common decency of their fellow citizens to offer solidarity, it was the United Nations who had to issue a declaration on the shutoffs. “This is what it’s come to: appealing to an international body to uphold the basic human right to water,” Redigan wrote.
It’s easy to “expose” the poor for their own failures and much harder to look behind that mask to see the person gasping for breath inside it. Why would someone living in poverty want to go to the movies or a theme park? For the same reasons that everyone else does: to enjoy a momentary escape from real life. However, Kansas and Arkansas seem to serve the same purpose of Sarah Jane’s assailant, reminding her that no matter how far she runs, she can’t run far enough. Sarah Jane spends her entire childhood trying to be someone else, the kind of person who would have, in fact, starred in a movie with Ronald Reagan.
But eventually, we all have to grow up and see things for the way they are.