“Abandoning the Poor” as a Political and Social Strategy?

            The lead editorial in the New York Times this past Wednesday was headlined arrestingly, “The Rush to Abandon the Poor.” The piece focused on Texas Governor Rick Perry’s (R) promise to forego Medicaid support under the nation’s Affordable Health Care Access law despite the fact that his state already has the highest percentage of uninsured citizens in the nation. The Times also noted that five other Republican governors have announced they will not expand Medicaid coverage for their uninsured citizens, regardless of the fact that the federal government will defray 100% of the cost of doing so for the first three years and 90% of that sum thereafter. The newspaper argued that these state executives are using the economic downturn, and their own choice to refuse national support, to ensure ongoing fiscal crises in their states that de facto are eliminating the states’ traditional role as a backstop for the country’s neediest citizens. And more, the Times reported these and other GOP-led states are eliminating general assistance payments to the poor and disabled, even as Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) found a way this month simultaneously to make those cuts and to provide $300 million in new tax reductions for businesses. Other Republican governors and legislatures have reduced or eliminated support for thousands of Medicaid and general assistance recipients in their states as well.

            Meanwhile, coincidentally, the Democracy Project of the Brennan Center at New York University released a study of the implications of harsh new voter identification laws in ten states on the same day the Times published its editorial. The nonpartisan analysis, “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification,” found that the controversial new statutes were likely to depress turnout in coming elections among those affected - disproportionately the poor, minorities the disabled and rural area residents - since the cost and logistics of attaining acceptable identification for many citizens in these groups will be sufficiently high to dissuade them from obtaining it. Interestingly, the Report pointed out that these states account for nearly half of the electoral votes that will be needed to gain election to the Presidency this fall (125) and the constituencies affected by the new laws are seen as more likely to vote Democratic than Republican when they do cast ballots. The Project’s report concluded the onerous new requirements and the difficulties of ensuring necessary documentation among the roughly 5 million affected citizens would indeed depress voter turnout among the groups and could, in a close presidential election race, affect its outcome. All of the states that have taken these actions have GOP controlled legislatures and all justified their initiatives on the grounds that such efforts would deter voter fraud. While this appeal to fear and malfeasance may hold some emotional attraction, in fact, there is no empirical evidence that the American electoral system suffers from widespread fraud, and certainly not disproportionately among the groups that practically are most affected by the new voter identification requirements in these states.

            It is difficult to review such evidence and not conclude, as the Times did, that the Republican Party has decided as a part of a systematic political strategy not only to reduce sharply and, when possible, abandon support for the poor and impaired, but also to take steps to make it yet more difficult for these groups, already the target of broad social discrimination and opprobrium, to participate in the political process. The cynic might suggest that GOP officials have come to believe that these socially vulnerable groups are less likely on average to vote for their candidates anyway and so it is expedient both to depress their engagement and also to reshape government roles by simply denying them public support on the grounds of fiscal necessity. If this is so, it is indeed deeply cynical or worse.

            For their part, GOP governors have offered an array of public arguments for their decisions to curtail or deny support to the poor. Two in particular stand out as both inflammatory and revelatory: Governor Perry has argued Medicaid expansion to help a share of his state’s 6.3 million uninsured obtain health insurance represents an “incursion on his state’s sovereignty” (states are, of course, not sovereign in the American political system), while in a recent campaign fundraising address in Vermont, Governor Paul LePage of Maine likened the nation’s effort to help its poor and uninsured attain access to health care to the Gestapo’s role in the Holocaust. Both are deeply radical (if not bizarre) claims that appear to rest in a view of society as a free-for-all in which those who prosper are considered morally superior to those who do not or cannot. In no event, apparently for these leaders, should Americans seek to help anyone in their midst on the basis of their shared standing as fellow citizens and their need, but instead to leave such citizens to their own devices on grounds that if they cannot prosper, it must somehow be their own fault.

            During the last century this nation and many others moved away from this deeply individualistic and callous posture toward the immiserated and impaired in its midst, for obvious reasons, not least assuring these individuals their human and civil rights. But at least one of our political parties now appears to be returning to this extreme “survival of the fittest” view of society. Whatever else may be said of this position, this perspective is not, as some GOP leaders have suggested, animated by the overall budgetary significance of such assistance, as many national and state expenditure categories are far larger than support for the poor and disabled. Instead, again, it seems to rest finally on a view of society that would return the nation to a sense that it owes nothing to the poor or disabled in its midst, and to blame those individuals for their situations as it does so. I cannot imagine a surer recipe for social discord and fragmentation as well as deepening citizen alienation and disunity in the long-term than this course. It is more than sad to watch elected officials not only undo any ethical commitment to the less fortunate in their constituencies, but to do so with a false moral smugness and apparent callous indifference. For these leaders, this is not a debate about what Americans owe each other or how most effectively to provide such support, but apparently whether U.S. citizens owe anyone, beside themselves, anything in society. To the extent it is fully realized, this vision is finally a recipe for social disintegration and widespread alienation and hopelessness. Since our democracy rests only on our collective belief in our institutions and in the sinews that bind us voluntarily one to another, full embrace of this turn could only be deeply injurious, if not fatal, to our nation’s capacity for self-governance in the long run.