Stop shaming poor people for being poor

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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: In theory, there is nothing wrong with limiting how government dollars can be used
  • But many calling for cuts to things like food stamp programs have been making case with seemingly bad intentions, he says

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)One of the most searing memories from my childhood is the day my mother sent me to the local IGA with a book of food stamps in one hand and a grocery list in the other. Little else I have done in the intervening three decades of life made me feel as much shame as I did that day.

Issac Bailey
Until conservative policymakers understand the depth of that kind of shame -- and its causes -- they will never garner enough support for sensible policies that may improve the lives of the poor and working class, especially those restricting the use of food stamps, which the government has repeatedly rejected.
Even some of the most thoughtful conservatives seem to not get that point, as evidenced by a recent piece in The Washington Post titled, "How liberals undermine the food stamp program." In it, Charles Lane referenced a November report from the Agriculture Department to argue that though food stamp recipients spend roughly $13 billion a year on junk food with taxpayer dollars, liberals don't want the program reformed, even as it contributes to increasing rates of obesity.
When my face was hot from shame as I stood in line at IGA, I had done nothing wrong; neither had my mother or family. We worked hard, hours on end in tobacco and cucumber fields and doing house renovations to turn our tin can of a trailer into a home, and rebuilding engines to keep our sputtering cars on the road.
We valued education. We practically lived in church. But because we needed help, we were told over and over again -- in messages delivered from the nation's halls of power to our own neighborhoods -- that we were lazy, too dependent upon government handouts and hadn't taken personal responsibility for our lives.
This kind of thing was everywhere when I was growing up, including in President Reagan's repeated references in speeches to "welfare queens," and they've continued in various forms to this day, mostly via scorn from conservative pundits and lawmakers, but also from everyday Americans who express disgust at the sight of someone paying for a steak with an EBT card.
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That is where the shame comes from: being treated as though you are sin personified for having the audacity to be poor in America. And every time you hear another politician preach the virtues of personal responsibility, as though those who use government benefits are uniquely averse to such a thing, the shame deepens.
That's why when even progressive-leaning former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and others call for a ban on the purchase of soda and other such products with SNAP benefits, as they did a few years ago, it feels like a slap in the face, not an effort to combat one of the known causes of obesity and "Mountain Dew mouth" in some of the most impoverished areas of the country. If conservatives hadn't spent so many years demeaning the character of the poor, such initiatives would be an easier sell. (Bloomberg's proposal was rejected by the USDA.)
In theory, there is nothing wrong with limiting how government dollars can be used, especially if the limits are meant to ensure the government isn't unwittingly fueling a health crisis it then has to pay to try to mitigate. In theory, placing such restraints could mean potential life-altering health benefits in the portion of the population that needs those changes the most. In theory, it would be a win-win: healthier people and health costs requiring fewer taxpayer dollars.
As Charles Lane wrote:
"Those who argue for the SNAP status quo may do so with good intentions, because they fear that airing concerns about SNAP's junk-food subsidy plays into the hands of conservative budget-cutters looking for reasons to gut the program. The opposite is just as likely to be true: A SNAP purged of sodas or candy, or both, could be less vulnerable to cuts."
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The problem is that so many of those calling for cuts, or even necessary reforms, have been making the case with seemingly bad intentions. It is right to wonder why they demand drug tests and, in the case of the recent proposed GOP health care bill, work requirements for the poor who receive government help, but don't demand the same for the wealthy and middle class: Americans who also receive government aid in the form of subsidized employer-sponsored health plans, mortgage deductions, a lower tax rate on capital gains and a Medicare program that provides triple the benefits than what the average recipient paid into the system.
There is no guarantee that banning soda from SNAP purchases will be more effective than trying to lower the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables and making them more widely available in the poorest communities. Maybe the most sensible approach is to do both. But there's little chance the reform debate will finally be centered on the potential effectiveness of various approaches until poor people are no longer shamed for being poor.