"Work Requirements" and the Political Appeal of Cruelty

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We at PBPC are engaged in a major effort to push back against legislation in the PA General Assembly to create work requirements for Medicaid and SNAP. The new federal Farm Bill put forward by House Republicans, which authorizes the SNAP (Food Stamp) program, has similar provisions.

We have been pointing out that the stereotypes used to justify work requirements are simply untrue. We show that stereotypes that justify harsh measures on those who are struggling with low incomes are based on falsehoods. The American social safety net almost entirely benefits people who cannot work — the elderly, ill, and disabled — or working Americans. It offers very little to able-bodied men and women who do not work.

People who receive Medicaid and food stamps mostly work when they can find employment and are not ill, disabled, in school, or taking care of young children or elderly adults. Except for the ill and disabled, they don’t stay on Medicaid or food stamps indefinitely, but take advantage of these programs when they are unemployed or their income drops. We’ve pointed out that federal support for health care goes to everyone, including many middle class or rich people who receive tax breaks for health isurance, whether they get it through their employer or purchase it on the exchanges. Yet the stereotypes about “welfare” are astonishingly difficult to extirpate from our public lives. I want to consider why that is so. There are two fundamental reasons, one having to do with those who keep repeating these stereotypes and the other with those who believe them. 

The first group are the political representatives of the rich and powerful and the right-wing ideologues, whose main goal in political life is to reduce taxes. Even in a state like Pennsylvania, where the very rich pay a far smaller share of their income in state and local taxes than working people, their political representatives want to cut taxes even more. And to do that, they have to cut public spending. A great deal of public spending is difficult to cut. People really do believe in most public spending — on things like education, higher education, and taking care of the elderly. But if the poor can be blamed for their own situation, then one can justify taking what they receive from government away from them. And if these politicians can associate government spending on the whole with those who they claim are undeserving, they can bring government as a whole into disrepute.

The second group are those working and middle-class people who are suspicious of their fellow citizens and want to make sure that only the “truly needy” benefit from the safety net.

Some of these people are struggling with stagnant or slowly increasing incomes, uncertain pensions, and growing unemployment in the declining areas of the state. They are resentful and angry at the government leaving them behind in a changing economy. And, because the benefits they receive such as tax deductions on their mortgages and health insurance or favorable tax treatment of retirement income in Pennsylvania are not so obvious, they don’t recognize how much they actually get from government. They are ripe for an argument that claims that some people who may not deserve it are benefiting from government help.

But not all working and middle-class people who support "work requirements" are suffering economically themselves.

Support for “work requirements” on all sides is reinforced by an unfortunate tendency in human nature to deal with our own fears by pushing them away onto others. Every single one of us is vulnerable to disruptive events in our lives. Middle-class people, and especially middle-class women, find themselves impoverished every day as a result of job loss, illness, the sudden death of a spouse, or divorce. So many of the people who benefit from food stamps and Medicaid are members of the middle class who have fallen on hard times and use the safety net to keep body and soul together until they can turn their lives back around. Serious misfortune could happen to any of us. In Pennsylvania, 22% of Medicaid recipients are college graduates.

We are so loathe to recognize the possibility of a misfortune that could upend our own lives that we desperately want to believe that impoverishment only happens to those who, in one way or another, deserve it. We want, more than anything, to think that people are impoverished because of something they did wrong, not bad luck. So, we cling to the myth that those with low-incomes are different from us and mostly undeserving.

And then, because we do think they are different and undeserving, we feel free to let loose the worst aspect of human nature — our capacity for cruelty — upon them.

Of course, cruelty is easier when we can denigrate the people who benefit from the safety net if they are different from us because they are people of color or “white trash.”

And, that is exactly what the work requirement legislation is — an act of cruelty against those who are most vulnerable in our community on the part of not only cynical, but mean politicians who are encouraging that meanness on the part of their constituents in the search for a few votes.

We need to stand up to this cruel, mean, and dishonest policy. We need to stand firm against the instinct we all have to blame the victims of misfortune for their own suffering.

We need to stand together for humanity and justice and say, again, that we are all brothers and sisters under God. And our morality and our God demand that we not distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor; that we not indulge our fears and cruelty, and that we instead act on the moral truths we embrace on the Sabbath but too often forget the rest of the week: that no one who lives among us should ever go hungry or without health care.


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