Republicans can’t stop won’t stop hating the poor

Republicans can’t stop won’t stop hating the poor
Rep. Kevin McCarthy with Rep. Tom Emmer and RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel in 2022 (Creative Commons)

We already knew that the deal struck between the president and the House Republicans, to lift the debt ceiling, was going to place new work requirements on childless adults between the ages of 50 and 54 in return for food stamps.

What we didn’t know is that the legislation changes “work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides cash assistance to households with children. Under the provisions in the bill, states will likely have to require more parents on TANF to work or be in job training,” according to Kery Murakami, a senior reporter for Route Fifty, a news site.

Murakami has the details. They are granular and patchwork. Some states would be free to do more to help needy families. Other states would be free to do less. Either way, one official said, the new requirements don’t “leave a lot of time to be parents. We want them to be able to be parents. We want them to be able to solve the crisis that has brought them in our doors in the first place.”

According to David Dayen, editor of TheAmerican Prospect, food stamps and TANF “became a Republican red line. Both of these programs already have work requirements; they’re being made stricter. For TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare), they appear to be somewhat optional for the states, which means red states will tighten their eligibility.”

During debt-ceiling talks, TANF did not get the press that food stamps got. This is due to those who get help with groceries being in a much larger group than those who get help at state-poverty levels. Some say the deal avoided the severest outcomes. Work requirements on food stamps affect only childless adults. But TANF changes affect plenty of kids. From a broad point of view, things could have been worse. From a particular point of view, they are worse.

So we should remember what Hakeem Jeffries said. During debt-ceiling talks, when word got out that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was bent on forcing the hungry to work, the House minority leader reportedly told a Democratic Party leadership committee that work requirements were a “nonstarter.”

I understand the need for flexibility during negotiations, especially with illiberals who can’t stop won’t stop hating poor people for the fact of their poverty. But evidently work requirements were not a nonstarter. Under Jeffries’ leadership, more Democrats than Republicans voted for the deal.

The problem, I think, was taking McCarthy’s words at face value. He, like other illiberals, said that forcing the poor to work lifts them out of poverty. Liberals were right to say he was wrong. Denying them aid deepens their misery. But one side saying it “works” and the other saying it doesn’t work as intended is variation of gridlock. Remember that gridlock favors rightwing politics.

Debating whether a particular policy does or doesn’t work is a losing debate in the face of illiberals who can’t stop won’t stop hating poor people for the fact of their poverty. Instead of debating illiberals as if they were prepared to stand by their own arguments (they are not), liberals should be alleging – that denying help to the needy is tantamount to punishing them for suffering.

Poverty is not a crime. Let’s stop acting like it is.

Let’s also stop acting like it’s a problem no one can solve.

It’s only unsolvable when debating for and against an anti-poverty policy takes place in a context in which illiberals can’t stop won’t stop hating poor people for their poverty. To get to the details of any policy idea, and to open a space in which debating its merits is possible, the illiberals must be marginalized, or at least chastened. Debating the merits of a policy won’t do that. Accusing illiberals of wanting to punish those who suffer for their suffering might.

No one chooses to suffer. Illiberals disagree.

They believe with all their hearts in the existence of the mythical Lazy Do-Nothing. They believe he’s out there, somewhere, lazing about, getting something, doing nothing. They believe that work requirements are benevolent and socially constructive. They said they punish laziness and reward work.

But the only way for that proposition to be true – that poor people choose their poverty as well as their suffering – is for you to have an opinion about poor people that’s so monstrous that they are scarcely human beings at all. In other words, for the proposition to be true – that poor people choose their poverty – you must already hate poor people for the fact of their poverty.

The problem isn’t whether this or that anti-poverty policy does or doesn't work. The problem is hating the poor. The problem is punishing them for suffering. They are already suffering. Now they will suffer twice as much.

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