Demonizing the poor

One of the many consequences of having so many states controlled by Republicans is that there has been a flurry of bills demonizing the poor. One of the most common ways of doing so is by dictating what can and cannot be bought using food stamps and other forms of assistance. Many of these bills feed off of stereotypes of the poor - and stereotypes of "those people."

Emily Badger at The Washington Post notes that there are a lot of problems with these bills:

The first is economic: There's virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way. The idea that they do defies Maslow's hierarchy — the notion that we all need shelter and food before we go in search of foot massages. In fact, the poor are much more savvy about how they spend their money because they have less of it (quick quiz: do you know exactly how much you last spent on a gallon of milk? or a bag of diapers?). By definition, a much higher share of their income — often more than half of it — is eaten up by basic housing costs than is true for the better-off, leaving them less money for luxuries anyway. And contrary to the logic of drug-testing laws, the poor are no more likely to use drugs than the population at large.

The second issue with these laws is a moral one: We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.

That leads us to the third problem, which is a political one. Many, many Americans who do receive these other kinds of government benefits — farm subsidies, student loans, mortgage tax breaks — don't recognize that, like the poor, they get something from government, too. That's because government gives money directly to poor people, but it gives benefits to the rest of us in ways that allow us to tell ourselves that we get nothing from government at all.

Political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called this effect the "submerged state." Food stamps and welfare checks are incredibly visible government benefits. The mortgage interest deduction, Medicare benefits and tuition tax breaks are not — they're submerged. They come to us in round-about ways, through smaller tax bills (or larger refunds), through payments we don't have to make to doctors (thanks to Medicare), or in tuition we don't have to pay to universities (because the G.I. Bill does that for us).

I would add a fourth problem: many poor people don't vote.

There's a strong correlation between income an voter turnout. Nearly 80% of those who make $150,000 per year voted in 2008 - almost twice the turnout rate of those who make less than $15,000.

Of course, that also ties in with voter ID laws.

I've never been extremely poor (I've always had a roof over my head, for instance), but I've felt the pain of being on a limited income - and even no income.

It sucks.

But this sinister trend is is part of a vicious cycle that is undermining our civic life. Poor people are less likely to vote, so politicians ignore their needs. And because many politicians ignore the poor, the poor don't think government matters - so they don't vote.

It's up to us - poor, middle class, and everyone else - to break that cycle.

In the coming weeks, I'll talk about how we can break this cycle.

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