Morris: Meanness and the Poor

Speaking to a group of college Republicans in 1978, a second term Congressman named Newt Gingrich declared, "One of the great problems in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty." Seventeen years later that problem has been solved. Recently, Newt took his brand of nastiness to new heights, or depths. The occasion was a speech to Republican Governors. The day before a particularly brutal murder had occurred in Chicago. Pregnant Deborah Evans, aged 28, and her two young children were stabbed to death by her former lover and the father of the child in her womb. He cut open her uterus with a pair of household scissors and took away the baby. Newt blamed the murder on "the welfare state". Apparently Ms. Evans had made herself vulnerable to brutality because she had received public assistance. Gingrich didn't exactly say she was responsible for her own murder. Not exactly. He did say that a society that is generous to poor people breeds brutality. A Buffalo News journalist has pointed out that the wealthy also commit heinous crimes. Betty Broderick killed her ex husband and his new wife. The Menendez Brothers killed their parents. Jeffrey MacDonald hacked up his wife and two children. Can you imagine Newt blaming these brutal murders on the arrogance and bizarre habits of the rich and proposing as a solution higher income taxes? Of course not. Rich murderers are viewed as eccentric individuals. Only the poor are treated as a class. Several of our politicians have decided they no longer need even to consider poor people as human beings. During a House debate on welfare earlier this year, Representative John L. Mica, a Republican from Florida held up a sign, "Do Not Feed the Alligators." Representative Barbara Cupin, Republican of Wyoming, echoed her esteemed colleague by comparing the poor to wolves. Last year California randomly selected 400 welfare recipients and conducted an in-depth investigation of their personal lives and consumption habits. "(I)f you randomly chose 400 defense contractors to investigate to see how they spend the public's money", said Gary Blasi, a UCLA Law Professor, "you wouldn't be able to get a parking place around the courthouse there would be so many corporate lawyers objecting to it....There is a centuries-old notion that being poor is an indicator of immorality." Conservatives even go so far as to insist that giving money to the poor actually makes them poorer. On the face of it the argument is absurd yet a remarkable number of people believe it. The truth of the matter is much more compatible with common sense. Poverty has been going up because we have been giving the poor less, not more. Between 1973 and 1990 the number of people on welfare stayed roughly constant while the number of people living in poverty rose from 25 million in l970 to 39 million in l993. In 1992 only 63 percent of poor children received AFDC, compared to 84 percent in l973. And for those who still received welfare, the value of their benefits plummeted. Between l970 and l994 AFDC benefits declined by 47 percent. Other nations have been quite effective at reducing poverty through government actions. In 1991 government tax and transfer systems in Canada lifted about 20 percent of all single parent families out of poverty. In France the success rate was 50 percent. In the Netherlands and Sweden it was at least 75 percent. In the United States it was a pitiful 5 percent. It should not be surprising that child poverty rates in this country are over 20 percent, while in France they are 4 percent and in Germany 3 percent. The buzzword in both Republican and Democratic circles these days is workfare. Two years and you're out. We should remember that the typical welfare recipient is off the welfare rolls in two years. For the rest, the bipartisan assumption is that they are lazy and only need a good kick in the behind and an alarm clock to gain employment. Nonsense. Michigan Governor John Engler, the Republican's poster boy, ended General Assistance four years ago. He threw 80,000 able bodied, single adults onto the streets. A subsequent study by the Michigan Department of Social Services and the University of Michigan determined that most of these recipients were between 41 and 65, and just one third of them found full time jobs within two years. Three out of five of those who found work were either janitors or food service workers at minimum-wage jobs that almost always lacked health insurance. Homeless shelters were flooded with new applicants. These were years of falling unemployment in Michigan. In other words, Michigan may well be the best case scenario for work fare. Newt Gingrich has come a long way since those dark days in 1978 when he urged his followers to get nasty. Nastiness is now an accepted part of political rhetoric. Nastiness has helped to frame the debate about and guide our actions toward the poor. Newt Gingrich has infected the body politic with a level of meanness not witnessed for two generations. And we are all the poorer for his success.

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