Saturday, August 17, 2013

If Congress has its way, the poor will always be with us

In 2003, Governor Dave Freudenthal appointed me Director of Wyoming’s Department of Family Services. During a press conference announcing the appointment, Wyoming Public Radio news director Bob Beck asked, “What happened to all the people Wyoming removed from the welfare roles?”

Following President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, Wyoming reduced the roles of the old “Aid for Families With Dependent Children” program by 90%, winning awards and accolades for this “accomplishment.” Beck wanted to know what happened to these folks.

I didn’t know but promised I’d make a point of finding out. I did. They went to work.

Welfare reform put strict limits on the time a person could receive benefits and also created work requirements. If you weren’t disabled, you had to find a job. Welfare reform promised taxpayers lower welfare roles. It promised welfare recipients the support they needed to find work, feed their families, and find childcare.

The first promise was kept. Families were dispatched from AFDC into the workplace. Welfare reform did little more than create a forced labor supply for employers who wouldn’t pay livable wages. Disproportionately high rates of Wyoming people not only got jobs, often more than one, working for low wages with no benefits.

Food stamps and Medicaid became a subsidy to low wage-paying employers. Right-wingers like Congressman Stephen Fincher of Tennessee quoted the Bible in support of cutting aid for poor workers, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” That sort of scriptural libel reflects a meanness of spirit rejected everywhere in the Bible. It also conveniently ignores the reality of the world Congress, including our Congressman Cynthia Lummis, created for low income working families.

Lummis first supported a Farm Bill drastically cutting nutrition aid to low-income families saying, “This bill,” Lummis said, “was crafted to save billions for our country and establish long overdue reform to the 1996 welfare and nutrition programs.” The reform she refers to is the reneging on the promise to the poor that if they worked fulltime, they’d at least be able to feed their families. That bill would have cut 20 billion dollars from food aid. It failed mostly because Democrats felt it was too drastic and many Republicans felt it was not drastic enough.

Senate Democrats did the poor no favors when they agreed to cuts of $4.5 billion. The well being of as many as five million people are at stake. The Health Impact Project, a Washington research group, said the cuts would not only affect the ability of low-income households to feed their children, but would also increase poverty.

In the hyper-partisan House of Representatives, the GOP came up with a solution. They removed any mention of nutrition programs and passed, on a near straight party line vote, a bill that would make certain agribusiness subsidies continued even if food stamps didn’t. Lummis voted for that strategy.

Now we learn the Bible-quoting-Congressman Fincher received three and a half million dollars in agricultural subsidies. Lummis Livestock, of which our Congressman owns a large interest, received $47,093 in farm subsidies between 1996 and 2002.

The average monthly benefit paid to Lummis’ constituents who are working yet unable to make enough to feed her family is $133.41. A monthly average of Lummis’ subsidy exceeds 400% that amount. Still she insists it’s poor families dooming the federal budget.

This isn’t about rational, balanced approaches to solving the nation’s fiscal problems. This is opportunism. Some politicians have long targeted these programs. Whether it’s the Wyoming legislature trying to impose drug tests on welfare recipients and reject Medicaid expansion for the uninsured, or Lummis and her Washington colleagues’ efforts to reduce nutrition programs and replace Medicare with vouchers, they are using legitimate concerns over the national debt to make political statements about their disdain for the poor.

Mr. Fincher and Ms. Lummis should be made aware of another Bible verse. Deuteronomy 15:11, “You shall open your hand to the needy and the poor.” God wasn’t talking about the back of your hand.

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