EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece continues a campaign at TalkPoverty.org where advocates and people struggling to make ends meet will ask 2016 presidential candidates about how they would significantly reduce poverty and inequality in this country. Join the conversation on Twitter using #talkpoverty and #familiesvote.
The upcoming Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, California, offers prospective leaders of the largest economy in the world a chance to speak to the concerns of the 106 million Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. The looming question facing the working and middle class is this: How do we build a system that works for all of us?
The first Republican debates ran three and a half hours with 17 participants. The moderators failed to ask the kinds of questions that force candidates to say exactly how they will create opportunities for Americans being left behind. Even worse was the reinforcement of false and offensive stereotypes. When Fox News anchor and debate host Martha MacCallum asked, “How do you get Americans who are able to work to take the job instead of a handout?” she effectively called millions of struggling Americans freeloaders.
We need a debate with powerful solutions, not tired stereotypes.
Yet the next debate will be held at the library dedicated to the president who created or propagated many of the stereotypes that are still used to demonize people who are struggling in our economy. Ronald Reagan is seen by many as a hero—a Dirty Harry who told it like it is and stood up to friend and foe alike. But to many low-income families, he is a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, who—like the famous miser—exerted his power in a way that has made it harder for people to lift themselves up.
Reaganomics was rooted in the idea that if we build an economy that puts the interests of the wealthy first, then the benefits will trickle down to the rest of society. His formula was one part tax cuts for the well-off and three parts dismantling labor unions, cutting spending on social programs, and neutering government oversight.
The rigged rules of today’s economy are the logical conclusion of Reagan’s approach to public policy.
“In so many domains, the course was set in the 1980s,” says Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan professor and co-author of $2.00 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America. “Reagan set the course and the [politicians] who have come afterwards have taken it even further beyond.”
In our continuing series on the presidential debates and poverty, we asked Americans how Reagan’s economic legacy affects them and what they want to hear from the presidential candidates.
“The King of Rhetoric” pushes the stereotype of the “Welfare Queen”
One of Reagan’s enduring legacies was his deft use of rhetoric to push his ideas. None was more harmful than the label “welfare queen,” a pejorative term he coined that has become synonymous with black single mothers who receive public assistance.