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The Ongoing Republican Plan to Shame the Poor | The Nation

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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

The Ongoing Republican Plan to Shame the Poor

That House Republicans are opposed to anything that could assist regular Americans is par for the course. After all, this is a class of lawmakers who voted for two budgets that would slash social spending and gut the welfare state. What’s remarkable, as seen in the current fight over extending payroll tax relief, is the extent to which House Republicans are eager to heap scorn and disdain on the poor and disadvantaged. In addition to forcing drug tests on those who receive unemployment insurance—as if recipients are prone to drug abuse and thus undeserving—House Republicans want to require GED training for anyone who receives UI and does not possess a high school diploma. The New Republic’s Timothy Noah explains the problem with this egregious provision:

Requiring a drug test establishes that if you are collecting unemployment you are probably a disreputable character. It’s morally repellant, but not particularly novel, since companies now routinely require lower-tier workers to piss into a jar as a condition of unemployment. […]

The GED requirement, on the other hand, is a new way to communicate that if you lack a job you must be deficient…. If you don’t have a high school diploma, or a GED, you’re going to have a very difficult time getting a job. But if someone is collecting unemployment who lacks either of these things we know that person managed to get a job in spite of this educational deficit—otherwise he or she wouldn’t be on unemployment. To require this person to enroll in a GED program as a condition of collecting benefits is in essence to say that you had no business being in the labor force to begin with.

If this sounds like an overread of the situation—or comically evil—I challenge you to reconsider. Over the last year, conservatives have doubled-down on their view that the unemployed are responsible for their fate, and that the mass of Americans are “mooching” from the “makers” of society. “Reasonable” Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s draconian budget for the United States, while more conservative candidates like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain pushed for budget plans that would wipe out the income of poor and working-class Americans with massive tax increases.

Noah notes that Republicans regard the working poor as “morally indistinguishable from welfare recipients,” who have long been stigmatized by conservative politicians. But I think it goes a little further than that. To these conservatives, who maintain a theological commitment to the efficacy of upper-income tax cuts and deregulation, government benefits are sinful, and recipients of government benefits are sinners, regardless of whether their benefits are earned, deserved or otherwise.

Of course, this ignores the extent to which so-called “job creators” are the beneficiaries of actual government largess (see: the bailouts), and that the massive income gaps of the last thirty years are a direct result of government activism on behalf of concentrated wealth and entrenched power. Not that the truth of the situation matters; Republicans will continue to attack the disadvantaged, and at a time where many Americans are gripped by reaction and resentment, they are apt to find political success.

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