April 8, 2015

From Waging a War on Poverty to Waging a War Against the Poor.


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In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.”

At the time, poverty affected approximately one in five Americans.

Fifty years later, approximately one in six Americans is affected by poverty. But draconian state and federal budget cuts promise to tip the scales further away from LBJ’s Great Society vision, and in the meantime we have turned poor-shaming into a cottage industry.


The latest War on (the Dignity of Those In) Poverty is being waged in Kansas. House Bill No. 2258, which is expected to be signed into law by Republican Governor Sam Brownback this week, will shine sunshine and rainbows on those needing Kansas’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in the following ways:

• A maximum benefit withdrawal limit of $25 per day
• Banning use of benefit cards to purchase professional or collegiate sporting event tickets and movie tickets
• Banning use of benefit cards at theme parks and swimming pools

You get 25 bucks a day, moocher. Junior wants an ice cream? Tough! He can just stand in the back and take in the humiliation of watching every other kid get their Blizzard, because daddy had the balls to get laid off.

But really, it’s for the benefit of the poors! State Rep Carolyn Bridges: “I just think we are simply saying to people, ‘If you are asking for assistance in this state, you’re sort of less than other people and we’re going to tell you how and where to spend your money.'”

Yes, an elected representative actually said that the less fortunate of her state are, in fact, “less than other people.” I suppose I appreciate the honesty, but it makes my blood run cold reading it.

How did we get to this place? The right has done a masterful job of controlling the language over the last 40 years. From Roger Ailes work on the 1972 Nixon campaign (and of course the rise of the ultimate propaganda network, Fox News), to Lee Atwater’s inexcusable dirty work for Reagan/Bush in the ‘80s to Newt Gingrich’s infamous 1996 memo (“Apply these [contrasting] words to the opponent: ‘pathetic’, ‘bizarre’, ‘self-serving’”), the right has owned the debate, and they are currently using their control of the language to demonize Americans.

In some cases it’s a bludgeoning, but in most cases it’s a dog whistle.

Think of the birthers (“Y’know, we’ve never reaaaly seen President Obama’s birth certificate…have we? And are we sure he’s not a Muslim? Juuuust throwing that out there.”). The same innuendo tactics have convinced half the populace that those on public assistance are nothing but lazy thieves living it up on the public dole rather than humans who may have had misfortune hit, causing temporary need.

It’s so much easier to hate a symbol than a human being. So, dehumanize the humans, turn them all into a symbol of “otherness” and viola: National Rancor.

Never mind that those on public assistance have paid their share into these programs via taxes.

Never mind that approximately 60 percent of SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) recipients are, in fact, working.

Never mind the unconscionable hypocrisy of small-government conservatives “tell(ing) you how and where to spend your money.”

When I worked in the corporate world, I produced monthly fliers for the SNAP program. Do you know what foods qualify as “Nutritional” under SNAP? Oscar Mayer Lunchables, Coke and Pepsi, Doritos, Oreos. Does $25 a day for heavily processed deli meat, chips, cookies and a 2-Liter of Coke for the kids—and maybe a can of beans for mom and dad—really sound like living it up?

In Missouri, the push is on to bar those receiving assistance from purchasing meat and seafood. How dare the riff-raff dream of such luxuries as lean proteins!

And now, in Kansas, merely receiving $25 worth of assistance will come at the cost of further dignity. A trip to a swimming pool—an hour of distraction from food insecurity and stigma on a hot day—is now out of the question. Because some Kansans are “less than other people.”

Dehumanize the humans. Hate and judgement without guilt. ‘Murica.

Fifty years ago, we supposedly went to war on poverty. Fifty years later, we’re going to war on those who are poor. And Kansas is leading the charge.

We’ve come a long way, baby.



Author: Brian Westbye

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: *saipal/Flickr


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