Smart­phones aren’t why poor peo­ple can’t af­ford in­sur­ance

Poverty has noth­ing to do with lazi­ness, says po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Stephen Pim­pare

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Stephen Pim­pare is the au­thor of “A Peo­ple’s His­tory of Poverty in Amer­ica” and the forth­com­ing “Ghet­tos, Tramps, and Wel­fare Queens: Down and Out on the Sil­ver Screen.” He teaches Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire.

In re­sponse to a ques­tion about his party’s new plan that would in­crease the cost of health in­sur­ance, Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) sug­gested that peo­ple should “in­vest . . . in their own health care” in­stead of “get­ting that new iPhone.” He dou­bled down on the point in a later in­ter­view: “Peo­ple need to make a con­scious choice, and I be­lieve in self-re­liance.” Chaf­fetz is wrong. But he isn’t alone.

While he has been met with jus­ti­fi­able de­ri­sion for the com­par­i­son (The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Christo­pher In­gra­ham walked us through the math, point­ing out that a year’s worth of health care would equal 23 iPhone 7 Pluses in price), Chaf­fetz was ar­tic­u­lat­ing a com­monly held be­lief that poverty in the United States is, by and large, a re­sult of lazi­ness, im­moral­ity and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity. If only peo­ple made bet­ter choices, then they wouldn’t be poor — or so the reasoning goes.

This in­sis­tence that peo­ple could avoid poverty if they tried harder de­fines the think­ing be­hind the sig­na­ture wel­fare re­struc­tur­ing law of the Clin­ton era, the Per­sonal Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Work Op­por­tu­nity Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act of 1996. It’s the logic at the heart of ef­forts to im­pose work re­quire­ments on Med­i­caid re­cip­i­ents, to drug-test peo­ple col­lect­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance or to pre­vent food stamp re­cip­i­ents from buy­ing steak and lob­ster.

Never mind that re­search from across the so­cial sciences shows us, over and over again, that it’s a lie. Never mind low wages or the lack of jobs, the sub­stan­dard qual­ity of too many schools, the dearth of mar­riage­able men in poor black com­mu­ni­ties (thanks to a racial­ized crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and dis­crim­i­na­tion in the la­bor mar­ket) or the high cost of birth con­trol and day care. Never mind the fact that the largest group of poor peo­ple in the United States is chil­dren. Never mind the grim re­al­ity that most Amer­i­can adults who are poor are poor de­spite their ef­forts, not from a lack of ef­fort.

This deep de­nial serves a few func­tions, how­ever.

First, it’s founded on the as­sump­tion that the United States is a land of op­por­tu­nity, where mov­ing up is easy and hard work gets you ahead. We’ve re­cently taken to call­ing this no­tion grit. While grit may have ush­ered you up the so­cioe­co­nomic lad­der in the late 19th cen­tury, it’s no longer up to the task to­day. Rates of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional in­come mo­bil­ity are higher in France, Spain, Ger­many, Canada, Ja­pan, New Zealand and other coun­tries than they are in the United States. And that mo­bil­ity is de­clin­ing here, an in­di­ca­tor of the fall­ing for­tunes not just of poor and low-in­come Amer­i­cans but of the mid­dle class, too.

To ac­cept this as re­al­ity is to con­front the un­pleas­ant fact that myths of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism are just that — myths — and that many of us would fare bet­ter eco­nom­i­cally (and live longer, health­ier lives, too) had we been born else­where. That cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance is too much for many of us, so we be­lieve in­stead that peo­ple can over­come any ob­sta­cle if they sim­ply work hard enough.

Sec­ond, to be­lieve that poverty is a re­sult of im­moral­ity or ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity helps peo­ple be­lieve that it can’t hap­pen to them. But it can hap­pen to them (and to me and to you). Poverty in the United States is com­mon; ac­cord­ing to the Cen­sus Bureau, over a three­year pe­riod, about one-third of all U.S. res­i­dents slip be­low the poverty line at least once for two months or more.

Third — and con­ve­niently, per­haps, for peo­ple like Chaf­fetz and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — this stub­born in­sis­tence that peo­ple could have more money or more health care if only they wanted them more ab­solves the gov­ern­ment of hav­ing to in­ter­vene on their be­half. In this way of think­ing, re­duc­ing ac­cess to sub­si­dized health in­sur­ance isn’t cruel; it’s re­spon­si­ble, a form of tough love that forces peo­ple to make good choices in­stead of bad ones.

There’s one fi­nal prob­lem with th­ese kinds of ar­gu­ments, and that is the im­pli­ca­tion that we should be wor­ried about poor peo­ple buy­ing the oc­ca­sional steak, lottery ticket or, yes, even iPhone. Set aside the fact that a bet­ter cut of meat may be more nu­tri­tious than a meal Chaf­fetz would sup­pos­edly ap­prove of, or that a smart­phone may be some­one’s only ac­cess to email, job no­tices, ben­e­fit ap­pli­ca­tions, school­work and so on. Why do we be­grudge strug­gling peo­ple the oc­ca­sional indulgence? Why do we so lit­tle value plea­sure and joy? Why do we in­sist that if you are poor, you should also be mis­er­able? Why do we re­quire pen­i­tence?

What Chaf­fetz is say­ing isn’t novel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t un­in­formed and dan­ger­ous. Chaf­fetz, Ryan and their com­pa­tri­ots of­fer us tough love with­out the love, made pos­si­ble through their will­ful ig­no­rance of (or ut­ter dis­re­gard for) what life is like for so many Amer­i­cans who do their best against great odds and still have lit­tle to show for it. Some­times not even an iPhone.

Why do we be­grudge strug­gling peo­ple the oc­ca­sional indulgence? Why do we so lit­tle value plea­sure and joy? Why do we in­sist that if you are poor, you should also be mis­er­able? Why do we re­quire pen­i­tence?

MARK MAKELA/GETTY IMAGES

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