Poverty is not a choice, nor is it a moral failing. I’ve long known this, growing up working class in the shadow of shuttered factories in Dayton, Ohio and coming of age in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. The people around me struggled – many on benefits, some without a car, at least one high school classmate without heat in her home – but still managed to pull together as a community, taking care of one another through families, churches, and civic groups. Poverty wasn’t something abstract or Dickensian. It was a fact of life.
This is a lesson Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz appears not to have learned. Tuesday morning he appeared on CNN’s New Day to defend the Republicans’ replacement for the Affordable Care Act, popularly dubbed Trumpcare. “You know what, Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice,” he said. “So maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.” Chaffetz later attempted to walk back his comments by saying he believes in “self-reliance”, but this conservative trope is a myth that enables poverty to continue.
It is impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots on your feet. I likely wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for government benefits like Pell Grants putting me through university – making me the first person in my family to transition from the underserving poor to the metropolitan elite. Yet framing poverty as an active decision is fairly typical of the right on both sides of the Atlantic, as is pointing to the luxury goods those on benefits have. This is, of course, exactly what Chaffetz aimed to do, because it diminishes the need for us to actively look at ways of helping to end the cyclical poverty that exists in places like Glasgow (both the city in Scotland and the town in Kentucky).
In the UK, Channel 5 has weaponised this myth to build a cottage industry out of “poverty porn” that shows just how “good” those on benefits supposedly have it. Shows like On Benefits and Proud and Channel 4’s controversial 2014 series Benefits Street, both about people living on the dole who happen to smoke, drink, and not be completely despondent or dejected, have been cited as evidence that it pays to be poor. Though these shows are British, these same attitudes exist in America, where the myth of the “welfare queen” – a usually Black inner-city woman who lives lavishly off benefits – was developed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and that racialised picture of the undeserving poor still exists in the minds of many Americans.
This is all, to use a five dollar word, bullshit. Most Americans in poverty are rural white people, the same folks who are credited with putting Donald Trump in the White House. I doubt Chaffetz or anyone else in the GOP would call them scroungers. I wouldn’t. I call them my family.
For people like Chaffetz, this is proof that the poor aren’t spending their money properly. Leaving aside that policing how people spend their money (and it is their money, not “mine as a taxpayer”) is the antithesis of small government philosophy, it’s simply not true. A US Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that there is negligible difference (within less than two percentage points) between the spending habits of those on benefits and those not for entertainment and apparel and services. However, Americans on benefits are spending 6.8 per cent and 4.4 per cent more of their annual budget on food and housing, respectively, than those who are not. These expenses account for more precisely because the poor have less.
Life in poverty is bleak enough without us judging the poor for having a luxury item like a smart phone (which, as Philip Bump points out in the Washington Post, is becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity – especially if you don’t have internet). And it certainly shouldn’t be an impediment to get healthcare. After all, as Bump again points out, an iPhone might cost around $700, but health insurance costs hundreds a month totaling thousands a year – and that’s not counting out-of-pocket deductibles and copays.
The Republican plan Chaffetz is defending could lead six to ten million people losing healthcare. This is a national disgrace. Unlike in Britain where the National Health Service is still free at the point of access no matter how much you earn, in America being poor won’t only mean you’re supposed to have a wretched life devoid of even the smallest joys, but that your poverty should kill you, too.
At least they can be buried with their iPhones, though.
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