On Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) helpfully explained that U.S. residents need to get their shit together and decide which they would prefer: iPhones or health care.
“You know what, Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice,” Chaffetz mewled the day after House Republicans unveiled their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. “And so maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
Chaffetz’s statement is predictably heartless. It’s also unoriginal.
His claim—that if people would just make the right choices, they wouldn’t be so ding-dang poor—is part and parcel of the GOP’s long tradition of demonizing low-income members of the public. Republicans have been spouting the same canards for decades, castigating people with low incomes as lazy, moochers, and on the endless hunt for free stuff. And somehow the GOP seems to consistently equate poor with Black.
Remember “welfare queens”?
Back in the 1970s, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan first invoked the specter of the “welfare queen.” The “welfare queen” stereotype depicts Black women in particular as slothful, looking to reap the benefit of government handouts by having more and more children—out of wedlock, obviously—and using those children to collect higher benefits.
This stereotype was false in a number of ways; in fact, the woman upon whom that stereotype was based, Linda Taylor, turned out not even to be Black (official records list her as white). However, the “welfare queen” myth resonated nevertheless because it fit neatly into existing lies about Black people. That we are lazy. Moochers. Disinclined to work. Promiscuous. A drain on society. Morally and socially bankrupt. Beyond help.
And Republicans are still playing on those stereotypes to convince even those they’re trying to screw over that conservative politicians are acting in their best interests. They purposefully sow division among low-income folks to try and convince poor white people inclined to such racist thinking that although they may be poor, they’re not really poor—or if they are, they deserve benefits because their poverty isn’t “deserved.” Sure, Johnny White Guy is collecting food stamps and gets his health care through Medicaid, but Johnny is just in a difficult spot. His wife left him and he’s struggling to make child support payments. In fact, he’s a couple months late on his payments, and that’s really troubling him. He doesn’t get to spend as much time with his kids as he would like. He’s just having a really hard time right now, but it’ll pass. He’ll land on his feet again. He just needs public assistance as a temporary solution until he can sort himself out.
Not like Johnny Black Guy. Johnny Black Guy is also struggling to make his child support payments, but is struggling really the right word? It’s not like Johnny Black Guy has any intention of paying his child support. Black father absenteeism is a real problem in this country, you know. Besides, how could a father possibly be involved in his kids’ lives if he has seven different kids by seven women? There’s a real culture problem in the Black community. Marriage has been devalued. Work has been devalued. Black folks just sit on the corner waiting for the check to come. Exactly how is Johnny Black Guy supposed to get a job when he won’t even pull up his pants much less look for a job. There’s no culture of work in the Black community. Paul Ryan as good as said so!
As for Black women? Forget about it. They’re too busy simultaneously gettin’ ‘borshuns and having too many children—and not marrying the father of those children—to lift themselves out of poverty.
Never mind that a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows that Black fathers are the most involved with their children daily, and that’s fathers who live with their children as well as those who don’t. And never mind that Black women are hella educated and that Republican policies like the Hyde Amendment, which encourages discrimination in the delivery of health-care services by refusing federal funds for abortion, actually sink women into poverty and disproportionately affect people of color. And never mind that there’s no single reason for poverty, and that an inherently unequal and often racist system means that generations are trapped in it regardless of their willingness to work.
But the stereotype persists. Jason Chaffetz’s comments Tuesday morning are simply an extension of it.
Obviously, forgoing the purchase of a several hundred-dollar phone isn’t going to matter when a medical emergency ends up costing thousands of dollars.
It’s blatant stupidity. And Chaffetz surely knows this.
But he probably also knows that as soon as he says the word “phones,” racist people will immediately think about how Obama was giving Black people free phones. He wasn’t, of course—President George W. Bush actually started the program that provides poor people access to phones—but the claim fit neatly into the narrative of Black people as lazy takers and Obama as the Black president handing out free shit to his people. It’s a narrative that is engrained in America’s consciousness: this idea that Black people want free stuff and Obama gave it to them. Free health care. Free birth control. Free phones. You name it.
So in case you’re wondering how, when it comes to health-care policy, Republicans are going to convince Trump voters that the shit sandwich the GOP is serving up is really a croque monsieur, they’ll continue to employ racial dog whistles that at this point are so loud and piercing one might best call them racial vuvuzelas.
They’ll blame poor people for their own failures. For being irresponsible and not having enough saved up to take care of their own health-care needs. And even if Republicans seem to be talking about all poor people, they’re building on a narrative of Black “takers” to automatically make white poor people think “that’s not me.” That’s what Chaffetz is doing. And that’s what Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) did last week in an interview with STAT, when he said that some people, like homeless people, “morally, spiritually, and socially” don’t want health care.
Those are actual words that came out of his mouth.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves,” Marshall claimed.
“Just, like, homeless people … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don’t want health care. The Medicaid population, which is [on] a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising,” he continued.
“And I’m not judging, I’m just saying socially that’s where they are. So there’s a group of people that even with unlimited access to health care are only going to use the emergency room when their arm is chopped off or when their pneumonia is so bad they get brought [into] the ER.”
He’s not judging for heaven’s sake. He’s just saying that some poor people refuse to take care of themselves. This is, of course, nonsense. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study shows that the Medicaid expansion resulted in improved health for low-income adults as well as fewer ER visits.
But these sorts of facts disrupt the narrative that poor people are lazy takers who probably should just die if they can’t take care of themselves.
Even as Republicans cynically sow division among poor people, their policies on health care, welfare, education, and more treat poor folks of all races the same: like garbage, even as they sell the lie that the American dream is available to anyone willing to work for it. This is a lie that too many Americans believe—that they are THISCLOSE to attaining that dream.
The truth of the matter is, if people are barely scraping by now, they’ll likely be barely scraping by tomorrow, and the next year, and the one after the that.
That’s because Republicans are committed to ensuring that the wealthy stay wealthy and the poor stay fucked.