iPhones or health care? America’s, DC’s perceptions about the poor

Mar 17, 2017, 10:08 AM | Updated: 10:08 am
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)...
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

When Rep. Jason Chaffetz recently advised poor people to spend less on their cellphones so they could buy insurance, he was exposing his own attitudes about the poor.

That is the approach that the poor are naturally ignorant and, like children, must be lectured to on how they should spend money and care for themselves and their children. Chaffetz walked back that statement a bit, as he has done in the past when his actual views are met by a buzz saw of public opposition.

But the perception of the poor he expressed is a common one, and has dire consequences.

One misperception of the poor is that those on welfare remain on government assistance for many years. However, according to the Urban Institute, about 70 percent of recipients go off government rolls within two years and almost 90 percent are off within five years. Most on welfare do not want to be there.

Another is that those who are poor with children purposely choose to buy fancy items rather than acquire health care coverage for their families. That perception is belied by the overwhelming response of the poor to the Affordable Care Act.

Eighty percent of those who signed up for Obamacare in the first year were in households eligible for federal financial subsidies. They were grasping on to what was literally a lifeline in order to gain access to affordable health care.

I have seen the human face of these statistics. Over 20 years ago, before Obamacare and the Children’s Insurance Program (CHIP), the son of a family I knew was injured on a campout and I delivered the boy back to their house. I asked the mother if she wanted me to accompany her to a doctor. She replied they did not have health care coverage and that she would sew the boy’s wounds herself, even though she lacked nursing skills.

In the wake of the recession, the “new poor” grew in numbers as middle class families lost their jobs and homes and suddenly needed welfare assistance and Obamacare. How quickly we forget that unemployment reached 10 percent nationally (and much higher in some communities) and that many formerly middle class families suddenly became much poorer.

Their new circumstances were not due to their stupidity but to economic forces that left them displaced.

Another group of poor, a minority, are those stuck in intergenerational poverty. Such a condition is not easy to leave. Not only do these people lack the social networks to escape poverty, they also may not believe they have the ability to do so.

The solution for their situation is not to do as Chaffetz did and lecture or mock them. Rather, it is to understand the social and economic forces that drive this phenomenon in order to find solutions.

Chaffetz is woefully out of touch with the lives of many of his constituents. That fact is frightening for someone who has been elected to represent all the people of his district and makes policy in Congress affecting those constituents, regardless of their income level.

However, he is not alone in his misperceptions of the poor. Too many of his Republican colleagues in Congress share his views, which may explain why they are blithely willing to strip health care coverage from the most vulnerable in our society.

Last Monday, the Congressional Budget Office released a report that 14 million fewer people will be insured next year under the Republicans’ new health care plan. Who are these people who will lose health care coverage? It will be the poor and the elderly.

To address poverty, we must understand the poor rather than mischaracterizing them as Chaffetz and others have done. Otherwise, we are inclined to make decisions like congressional Republicans based on misperceptions.

The poor we have with us always. Indeed, the measure of a compassionate society is how it treats the poor. The challenge of caring for the poor and needy becomes even more difficult when we don’t even understand them in the first place.

That misunderstanding can lead to tragic decisions.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics.” His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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iPhones or health care? America’s, DC’s perceptions about the poor