Meet Alice

I have a friend who owns a major company, and I periodically receive his company newsletter. He’s a truly good person, philanthropic and civic-minded, so I was startled to read what was surely a throwaway line in the most recent newsletter, in which he wrote that his company had experienced a good year, despite the national administration’s policies favoring “lazy” Americans.

Shades of Mike Pence’s “ennobling” and Mitt Romney’s 47%!

These attitudes toward “the least of us” have long been an indelible part of American culture. When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I traced several ostensibly secular policy preferences back to their religious roots. In the case of poverty policies, I concluded that attitudes toward the poor (beginning with 15th Century English poor laws that forbid giving “alms to the sturdy beggar”) are rooted in a simplified Calvinism: worldly success signals God’s approval; poverty is evidence of moral defect. Originally doctrinal, these attitudes have been absorbed into the popular culture.

The problem is, this easy dismissal of struggling Americans is at odds with reality.

Recently, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report is eye-opening.

Here are some “highlights” (highlights being something of a misnomer here):

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

For families living on the edge, families struggling just to put that dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

The United Way report (which is available online) is intended as an educational tool. Its data rebuts the thoughtless but ingrained caricature so skillfully deployed by President Ronald Reagan: that of the “welfare queen.” Built into that dismissive shorthand is the assumption that poor Americans “play the system,” refuse to work, and spend their days taking advantage of hard-working taxpayers.

A few such people undoubtedly exist, but so do the “captains of industry” who “play the system” by lobbying for subsidies and favorable tax treatment, and companies like Walmart that protect their hefty profits by using the taxpayer-provided safety net to supplement their payment of poverty wages.

Most businesses aren’t like Walmart; most owners are hardworking and honest, just as most Americans who fall below the Alice threshold are hardworking and honest.

As the Executive Director of the Jennings County Economic Development Commission wrote in the introduction to the report:

Alice is the family in Elkhart whose car breaks down, which takes the grocery money, which sends the family to the food pantry. Alice is the family in Terre Haute whose entire economic life comes undone when the breadwinner breaks a leg and loses three weeks wages. Alice is the family in Marion whose 11-year-old watches the 5-year-old because they can’t afford afterschool programs despite both parents working full-time.

Dismissing Alice as lazy is lazy thinking.

 

 

 

 

Ennobling the Poor

Could Mike Pence be any more embarrassing?

Federal SNAP benefits–food stamps, in everyday parlance–average about 1.40 per meal. Not exactly filet mignon level benefits. But Indiana’s delusional Governor (who is running for President and who will be eviscerated by a national spotlight that doesn’t suffer fools gladly) has announced that he plans to “ennoble” SNAP recipients by cutting off those who can work. As he explained to Faux News

“I’m someone that believes there’s nothing more ennobling to a person than a job,” Pence insisted. “And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependents at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their success.”

“You know, it’s the old story,” he continued. “Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Where to start?

First of all, SNAP recipients who are “able-bodied adults without dependents at home” are a small percentage of the total.  I’m sure the Governor’s rhetoric plays well with the GOP base he is targeting, but the vast majority of SNAP recipients are elderly, disabled or children–not the “welfare queens” of the Right’s fetid imaginings.

Second, there aren’t jobs available in low-wage Indiana that allow people to put food on the table. If our Pastor Governor wants to “ennoble” Hoosiers, he might consider changing his economic development efforts to concentrate on bringing good jobs to the state, rather than boasting over the poverty-level ones he actually attracts. As the United Ways’ ALICE report (more on that tomorrow) documents, basic household expenses in Indiana cost more than most Hoosier jobs can support.

Third, even poverty-level jobs aren’t widely available. Things are better than they were–thanks primarily to President Obama, not the Governor or our do-nothing Congress–but they’re far from good.

Tell you what, Mike: if you really want to “ennoble” struggling Hoosiers, stay out of Iowa, pass up the cozy get-togethers with the Koch brothers, and start doing the job you were (barely) elected to do. And just as a reminder–that job didn’t include suing the President, harassing the Superintendent of Public Instruction, marginalizing LGBT folks, preaching against reproductive choice or pontificating about the “nobility” of going hungry.

If you want to “teach a man to fish,” maybe you should consider stocking the lake.

 

Picking and Choosing– Benghazi Edition

Every so often, I’m reminded of an experience I had right after publication of my first  book, What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?  (Republicans were very different back then.) I was on a radio call-in show in South Carolina, and a caller challenged my defense of the Establishment Clause by “quoting” James Madison to the effect that “God gave the Bill of Rights to people who live in accordance with the Ten Commandments.”

When I (very politely) informed him that this quote had been debunked many times, that it was not only bogus but inconsistent with everything Madison did say, he yelled “Well, think it’s true!” and hung up.

Increasingly, it seems, we live in that man’s world.

A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party; one of the guests was a local judge whom I have always admired. The wine flowed, and as it did, she shared her contempt for the President and the “liberal media” which– unlike “real news” sources like the Drudge Report (!)– had failed to tell citizens the truth about…wait for it…Benghazi!

Last Friday, what I believe to be the eighth Congressional investigation of the Benghazi tragedy–an investigation controlled and conducted by Republicans–once again found no cover-up, no administrative bad faith or lying. As CBS reported

WASHINGTON — The CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a Republican-controlled House committee has found. Its report asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration officials.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the two-year investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

It is highly unlikely that this will change the minds of those–like my dinner companion–who prefer to believe in conspiracies. Slate recently reported recent research on the psychology of conspiracy theorists; as the story noted, millions of Americans believed that George W. Bush had engineered 9/11, despite the fact that:

To believe that the U.S. government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught. To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them—the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organizations, peer-reviewed journals, news organizations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states—was incompetent, deceived, or part of the cover-up.

If believing in a conspiracy requires one to accept a long list of highly improbable/practically impossible things, why do so many Americans believe them?

Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.

I guess that explains my James Madison caller. But it doesn’t make me feel much better about either my dinner companion or the U.S. Representatives (like Indiana’s Susan Brooks) who clearly know better but are willing to play to the paranoia.

Mississipi–Still Number One

Every once in a while, I worry that voters in Mississippi will grow up, maybe read something other than the bible, and join the 21st Century. That would be really bad for Indiana, since in so many categories, Mississippi  is all that stands between Hoosiers and utter ignominy.

Silly me–I shouldn’t have worried.

Here’s an upcoming ballot initiative from the Magnolia state:

The State of Mississippi hereby acknowledges the fact of her identity as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state, in terms of the majority of her population, character, culture, history, and heritage, from 1817 to the present; accordingly, the Holy Bible is acknowledged as a foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues; and, accordingly, prayer is acknowledged as a respected, meaningful, and valuable custom of her citizens. The acknowledgments hereby secured shall not be construed to transgress either the national or the state Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Um–hate to tell you this, Mississippi voters, but saying this language shouldn’t be “construed” as violating the Bill of Rights would be a lot like saying that if I fatally shoot you, that shouldn’t be “construed” as murder.

“Principally Christian and quintessentially Southern….”

Too many Hoosier lawmakers would feel right at home.

The GOP, Andy Borowitz and Immigration

Predictably, Congressional Republicans and their faux constitutionalist echo chamber are screaming that the President’s recent immigration order exceeded his authority.

It didn’t.

Congress has given the Executive branch wide discretion over deportation priorities and as both conservative and liberal legal authorities have confirmed, the President  is exercising that discretion in a manner consistent with Congressionally-endorsed policies such as family unification. As legal scholar Walter Dellinger pointed out:

There are 11.3 million people in the United States who, for one reason or another, are deportable. The largest number that can be deported in any year under the resources provided by Congress is somewhere around 400,000. Congress has recognized this and in 6 U.S.C. 202 (5) it has directed the secretary of homeland security to establish “national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.” In the action announced tonight, the secretary has done just that, and the president has approved.

In other words, Congress has never supplied funding sufficient to deport more than a small number of the undocumented, and the President–every President–has been given the discretion to decide who among those living here illegally should be targeted. And every President has exercised that discretion. As a comment on Andrew Sullivan’s blog put it,

As there is an existing, bipartisan agreement that some 96.5% of the undocumented population will be allowed to remain here (i.e., the “how many” question), Obama’s executive action asks only: which undocumented immigrants should populate the 400,000 who are deported?

The question is not whether Obama should increase the number of undocumented immigrants (he isn’t), but whether he should apply severely limited resources in a targeted fashion (e.g., new arrivals, criminals, etc.) or indiscriminately (e.g., a law abiding mother of a U.S. citizen-child)? And, is Obama plausibly “tearing up the Constitution” if he deports the only number of people he can (about 400,000), but prioritizes who should be deported within such Congressionally imposed constraints?

The answer to that question is self-evident. The GOP should be embarrassed to be making the hysterical, ahistorical and factually-inaccurate assertions that are currently filling the airwaves–but this isn’t your father’s GOP and in case you haven’t noticed, this particular President is  (in the eyes of the Republican base) by definition illegitimate.

Sometimes, when logic and fair play are clearly not going to carry the day, satire is all we have left. (I’m laughing because otherwise, I’ll cry.)  Andy Borowitz has been on a roll lately, and with respect to our current kerfuffle over the President’s immigration Executive Action, he has hit a home run/touchdown/nerve. I’m quoting the whole thing, because it’s just too good–and too true– to truncate:

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled his party’s long-awaited plan on immigration on Wednesday, telling reporters, “We must make America somewhere no one wants to live.”

Appearing with House Speaker John Boehner, McConnell said that, in contrast to President Obama’s “Band-Aid fixes,” the Republican plan would address “the root cause of immigration, which is that the United States is, for the most part, habitable.”

“For years, immigrants have looked to America as a place where their standard of living was bound to improve,” McConnell said. “We’re going to change that.”

Boehner said that the Republicans’ plan would reduce or eliminate “immigration magnets,” such as the social safety net, public education, clean air, and drinkable water.

The Speaker added that the plan would also include the repeal of Obamacare, calling healthcare “catnip for immigrants.”

Attempting, perhaps, to tamp down excitement about the plan, McConnell warned that turning America into a dystopian hellhole that repels immigrants “won’t happen overnight.”

“Our crumbling infrastructure and soaring gun violence are a good start, but much work still needs to be done,” he said. “When Americans start leaving the country, we’ll know that we’re on the right track.”

In closing, the two congressional leaders expressed pride in the immigration plan, noting that Republicans had been working to make it possible for the past thirty years.

As McConnell would say, “A-Yup.”