The public is stunningly misinformed about issues and concepts that are essential to understand if a democracy is going to thrive.
The Trump candidacy and presidency have exposed a powerful example of that problem since many who support Trump believe that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are different programs.
This important policy confusion is grounded, I believe, in larger concepts about which most in the U.S. are just as misinformed: race and social class.
Even among my college students who are well educated, few are aware that race has no basis in biology, but is a social construction. And people in the U.S. routinely over self-identify as middle-class, while also associating ethical and moral qualities to the classes (the poor as deserving their poverty due to character flaws; the wealthy as earning their wealth due to superior work ethics).
Further complicating the national beliefs about race and class is how the two overlap, specifically how lingering racism lurks beneath negative stereotypes about the poor.
Political leadership in the U.S., then, includes two powerful facts: most of those leaders are affluent, often among the very elite of wealth, and virtually all of those leaders speak to the public’s flawed but powerful beliefs about social class and race (although usually in coded ways).
As the Trump administration and Republican Party prepare to end the ACA and offer new healthcare legislation, what is being put disturbingly on display is a resurgence in attacks on the undeserving poor.
Three examples serve well to expose how Republicans and the mainstream media speak to and perpetuate the image of the undeserving poor in order to promote public policy that abandons the vulnerable and rewards the privileged.
As I have examined, just before Trumps inauguration, The New York Times published a damning and false story about people on welfare purchasing soda, In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.
Joe Soss refuted the article, noting that welfare recipients, the USDA studied actually showed, had very similar purchasing patterns as those not on welfare.
Yet, multiple states have begun legislation to bar soda purchases by any on welfare.
The NYT article, despite being provably flawed, and the proposed legislation reveal a social belief that people trapped in poverty somehow don’t deserve luxuries (sodas), that the poor must have higher standards of self-control than people in other social classes.
This example from the media helps us understand the Republican use of “choice” to mask how their policies benefit the wealthy and ignore the poor.
Next, consider Paul Ryan’s and Mike Pence’s groundwork for repealing the ACA—both of whom Tweeted about choice and freedom as the ideals driving their work.
Market-based healthcare shifts all the responsibility onto individuals, and Republicans are masters at manipulating the misinformed public.
Finally, as Republicans unveil how they will replace ACA, the realities of that plan (shifting the burden to individual medical savings accounts, despite most Americans without healthcare are also without savings or the ability to save) are being masked by the same sort of undeserving poor language found in the NYT:
“Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves,” [Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)] said on CNN’s “New Day” when pressed on insurance for low-income Americans under the latest draft legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act.
The illogic of such claims—does the cost of an iPhone really equal healthcare costs?—cannot stand up without cultural assumptions about the undeserving poor.
Rep. Chaffetz and the Republican Party depend on most people hearing this nonsense and thinking, “That is not me. That is not anyone I know or care about,” even when the consequences of the legislation is about them, about people they know and care about.
But even more damning is that the healthcare policy of the U.S. will always necessarily effect everyone; in other words, to view policy as “about me,” or not, is the best way to support legislation that will not serve you well.
The ignored truth, for example, about poverty helps expose how misguided the Republican agenda is.
The ignored truth is, Who are the poor?:
As you can see, more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.
The poor in the U.S. as vulnerable populations who are not lazy or deserving of their poverty—this is what confronts a people who must make an ethical decision about the role of public policy.
That over 30% of the poor who are children, they should have to depend on a medical savings account, the whims of the market?
In America, we are a misinformed people, and that results in a political dynamic in which many vote against their own best interests.
Welfare is not about purchasing sodas, and healthcare is not about choosing between care and an iPhone.
These are calloused lies driven by the media and political leaders who are trapped themselves in stereotypes about the undeserving poor.
Public policy as well as media and political discourse is much different when we reject the undeserving poor framing and seek ways to practice that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Unalienable rights for the most vulnerable among us must have nothing to do with competing in a market and everything to do with the collective will of a people who see ourselves in everyone.