A poverty of compassion
By Katharhynn Heidelberg
The War on the Poor.
It has a nice ring to it, rhyming as it does, and all. But this isn’t just a catchy phrase, it is too often reality, both in government and in daily practice. People appear to have taken Jesus’ commandment about “the least of us” to mean: “Do the least you can for them. Oh, and be sure to blame them for their plight. Because it’s totally what I would do.”
The push to drug-test welfare recipients (as in, poor families, not corporations and banks who swell their bellies at the public teat) has long been a prime example.
Pushing people to give up both privacy and presumption of innocence in exchange for food, housing and medical care doesn’t come from nowhere; it certainly doesn’t come from understanding the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I.”
It comes from distrust of the less fortunate. It comes from a point of moral superiority. It comes from the belief that poverty is a sin, if not an outright crime. It comes from righteous indignation, as in: “I have to be drug-tested to work to pay for the benefits that poor slob down the road gets.”
As I have noted in previous columns, that mindset misses the entire point: That, because of the presumption of innocence and probable-cause rights, no one should be drug-tested without cause, employed or not, unless that person is directly responsible for the physical safety of the public. (When you sign up to be a cop, an airline pilot or a bus driver, you know you are being entrusted with the care of others. When you sign up to be a janitor, a secretary or waiter, the level of trust is not the same and does not rise to having to set aside some of your civil rights.)
Not to mention, we all live subsidized lives. If you would not suggest a drug test for anyone who drives on a public road; utilizes a public sewer system, or has ever had to call upon police and fire services…maybe don’t be so gung-ho to insist that others first prove their worth.
Sadly, neither corporate America nor the American government seems willing to let go of the idea that the poor must pass a litmus test before being extended the milk of human kindness.
City after city has banned or attempted to ban panhandling or “aggressive” panhandling. Some cities have tried to restrict where the poor may gather and for how long, and have even gone after little old men who have the audacity to try to feed the poor in such places. A particularly ugly social-media meme draws an analogy between prohibitions on feeding wild animals and helping poor people — doing so will just make “them” dependent on handouts. Newsflash to all the “good” Christians and other “good” people who have posted that meme: People are not wild animals. They are not stray animals. After all, you would probably feed a hungry kitten, and I would think there’s something broken inside you if you don’t.
We come now to the latest iteration of the way poor people are viewed. Brave, brave, brave Kansas Republicans are putting a stop to all those cruises “teh poorz” apparently take. And from blowing their princely sums of public money in casinos, gettin’ all tatted up, going to a strip club, or withdrawing more than $25 a day.
The above are among the welfare restrictions Kansas wants to impose under HB 2258. Think about it. On one hand, you could argue Kansas just doesn’t want to see its money wasted; that, as Kansas Sen. Michael O’Donnell said, “We’re just trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended.”
But the things the rules would prohibit are telling. And what they tell is that Kansas assumes that poor people are stupid enough to pee away all their money on frivolities, and, of course, unsavory enough to have such vices. Because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be poor to begin with!
Not to mention, the whole “we need to be vigilant when it comes to the public purse” is absurd coming from Kansas. The state’s governor signed off on an income-tax plan that has drained its budget. The tax cuts have since been blamed as “the most significant factor in the continuing decline in overall state general-fund revenues … not the bogeyman excuses cooked up by (Sam) Brownback or any of his boosters,” Yael T. Abouhalkah wrote in a February column for the Kansas City Star.
What was Kansans’ response to the blazing incompetence of Gov. Sam Brownback? Elect him again! Brownback’s response? Double down! Because, you know, it is the welfare recipients that are crushing state finances and not his abysmal fiscal policy.
I do not suggest that all poor people are victims. I do not suggest that no poor people are lazy, or that there are no welfare cheats. There probably is even one recipient or two that has blown money on a tattoo.
It’s just that this is the exception, not the rule. We believe otherwise because we want to think we are better than others. We cling to the idea of the “worthy poor” and the “unworthy poor,” putting most poor people into the latter camp. This makes it much easier to look the other way when people are struggling.
For one party to co-opt this dark streak in human nature creates a chasm where there ought to be none: a moral nation takes care of its poor and hungry. It does not invent reasons to shirk that responsibility and it does not advance lies about all poor people being reckless, stupid ne’er do-wells who cannot be trusted not to swan about on cruise ships and visit gambling dens, courtesy the public’s largesse. Or even, per the Kansas restrictions, go to the movies. Oh, the hedonism of wanting to spend 10 bucks on two hours of escapism! Those dirty poor people need to be acutely aware of their miserable circumstances at all times! Or there will be no incentive to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — since lack of will and effort is the only reason, ever, for poverty.
Perhaps the party that wants so desperately to make America into a Bible-based theocracy ought to first prove it can follow the Good Book. (Which, by the way, does not say: “God helps those who help themselves.”) See: Just about every word of Jesus Christ.
Or, the oft-misquoted 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil…” The “love of ” bit is an important piece that is often left out, giving the incorrect idea that money, in and of itself, is evil without the application of human agency. Also, the verse concludes: “… which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
Even the Old Testament has plenty to say on the subject:
“He that despises his neighbor sins; but he that has mercy on the poor, happy is he.” — Proverbs 14:21.
“He that oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker; but he that honors Him has mercy on the poor.” — Proverbs 14:31.
Nowhere do these verses speak of the “worthiness” of the poor. Indeed, a general Christian interpretation of the Bible as a whole is that no one is actually worthy of mercy, but we can all receive it of Christ — and that His servants have a responsibility to emulate Him to the extent humanly possible. He fed 5,000 at one go. You can pony up some Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
When it comes to an indictment of the War on the Poor, there’s none finer than the Word of God. Not that I expect Kansas Republicans and like-minded souls to listen.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.