The GOP's Ongoing War to Re-Brand Poor People as "Lazy," "Freeloading"

To hear some Republicans speak of it, you'd think the Medicaid program was designed by the devil himself for the sole purpose of wasting money. It's been called, pejoratively, "socialist" and "a clear and present danger to the budgets and priorities of the states."

Not that Democrats spend all their time gushing over the program. It has its legitimate problems, to be sure. But the program does provide, if imperfectly, healthcare access to the country's poorest citizens. The New Republic senior editor Jonathan Cohn lays out Medicaid's importance in a column for Kaiser Health News:

Medicaid may not provide great access to care. But it does provide access -- access its recipients very much need and that, according to research, has measurably improved their health. In what may be the most well-known study of its kind, economists Janet Currie and Jonathan Gruber found large expansions of Medicaid during the 1980s and early 1990s "significantly increased the utilization of medical care, particularly care delivered in physicians' offices," leading to "significant" reductions in both infant and child mortality.

Medicaid also provides benefits that its unique population needs, but would struggle to find in the private insurance market. That includes lead screening for low-income children, a fragile population at high risk of toxicity from chipped paint in old, poorly maintained homes. And it includes long-term care, particularly nursing home care, for senior citizens who can't afford its high expense. In fact, it is the disabled and the elderly -- not the stereotypical single mother on welfare -- on whom Medicaid spends the majority of its money.

Low-income children. Senior citizens. People with disabilities. Who would oppose helping those demographics gain access to life-saving healthcare services?

Republicans, of course. The latest of many assaults on the program comes from thirty-three GOP governors and governors-elect from across the country whose states' budgets are crunched in the poor economy. The state leaders have sent letters to the White House and Congress whining about how they'll be punished under healthcare reform for dropping Medicaid enrollees, which are costing states more and more as the number of people eligible for the program grows. Under the Affordable Care Act, such states would lose the federal dollars that make up about 60% of Medicaid funding.

Essentially, the measure is meant to stop state leaders from punishing their poorest citizens for falling on hard times. If states want to stick it to poor people, they will lose much-needed funding.

Republicans want to kill the measure in large part to make a political point -- throwing a wrench into healthcare reform takes the wind out of Obama's political sails. Also, cutting back on expensive safety-net healthcare services helps states pay for the tax cuts that are oh so popular among Republican voters.

By doing so, they condemn millions of poor Americans -- including the growing ranks of the "new poor" created during this economic downturn -- to a life in which basic healthcare services are out of reach and medical emergencies spell financial ruin.

Aside from the inhumanity of this position, it seems like it would be a bad PR move, picking on low-income children and the like. To sidestep that issue, the GOP has been working tirelessly for decades to re-brand the destitute and the impoverished as the "lazy," the "entitled" and the "freeloaders." There were the "welfare queens" of the Reagan era, for instance, and more recently the spate of hateful and derogatory comments about the nation's growing pool of unemployed individuals.

"Is the government now creating hobos?" Republican Rep. Dan Heller of Nevada asked, rhetorically, in a discussion of jobless benefits last February. Former Rep. (and soon-to-be prisoner) Tom DeLay also weighed in on the issue around the same time. "You know, there is an argument to be made that these extensions of unemployment benefits keep people from going and finding jobs. In fact there are some studies that have been done that show people stay on unemployment compensation and they don't look for a job until two or three weeks before they know the benefits are going to run out."

Indeed, Republican lawmakers love to infer that people who have lost there jobs and may be living in poverty just need to get off their butts and find work -- never mind that there are at least five unemployed Americans for every available job out there. Bootstraps, dammit!

The indefatigable right-wing media, meanwhile, goes beyond inference. Bill O'Reilly in 2005: "[Y]ou gotta look people in the eye and tell 'em they're irresponsible and lazy....Because that's what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period. Period."

Irresponsible and lazy. There you have it.

This blame-the-victim rhetoric and the profits-before-people attitude toward Medicaid fit neatly into the GOP's anti-poor agenda. Progressive blogger Richard Barry sums that agenda up nicely (via the Huffington Post).

[T]he right wing has cleverly twisted the truth to make its case. Health-care reform is well on its way to being successfully re-branded as another entitlement program for a slothful underclass. The Republican leadership talks about unemployment insurance like it's a reward for laziness amongst the needy. The sub-prime mortgage crisis is explained as poor people wanting a life to which they are not entitled (instead of the result of unscrupulous banking practices). Tax cuts for the über-wealthy are taken to be a reward for obvious virtue, while the "have-nots" are assumed to deserve their meager lot. And lastly, opposition to progressive immigration reform is clearly a part of this narrative.

This should give all of us pause, especially given last week's news that, even by official measures, there are millions more Americans living in poverty than originally thought. With the safety net eroding at an alarming rate, and Republicans doing everything they can to speed up that process, the new reality is that losing a job or contracting a serious disease could spell financial disaster for any of us. In our new economic and political environment, those "lazy," "freeloading" poor people aren't "other," as Republicans would like you to believe. They could be you.


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