The Universal Notebook: The Pope, the GOP, and the poor

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Pope Francis’s message to the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and the American people could not have been much clearer.

His message was one of compassion for the poor and for refugees, of economic justice and defense of the environment.

Except for the single misstep of meeting secretly with evangelical county clerk Kim Davis, he managed to avoid the landmines of America’s culture wars while espousing progressive values that must have chafed and chastened Christian conservatives.

This is a pope, of course, whose 2013 Evangeli Gaudium was a stinging rebuke of “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” And last year, Francis told worshippers in St. Peter’s Square, “Jesus teaches us to put the needs of the poor ahead of our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor, who lack the necessities of life.”

But while the Pope counsels a war on poverty, the conservative wing of the Republican Party (which may be the only wing the GOP has left and the reason it won’t fly) wages a war on the poor.

Here in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage and his human services chief, Mary Mayhew, are focused on denying human services to as many citizens as possible. Why? Because the twin bogeymen of welfare fraud and illegal immigration, neither of which are a serious problem in Maine, appeal to the basest of voters.

LePage’s latest scheme to limit public assistance is his proposal to impose a food stamps assets test, denying temporary help to anyone with more than $5,000 in assets beyond their primary residence and car. Not only would this discourage those receiving food stamps (in a state which is fifth in the nation for food insecurity) from improving their own lot in life, it would penalize those who have fallen on hard times by insisting they get rid of anything they have of value before getting help.

Shaming the poor – blaming the victim – is a primary weapon in the war on the poor.

Lewiston’s Republican mayor, Robert MacDonald, brought the ugly GOP anti-poor animus out into the open recently with his proposal to post an online welfare registry so everyone could see who was getting help. It is to the credit of state legislators that none could be found to sponsor such a puritanical bill.

But make no mistake about it, the subtext of the Republican war on the poor is the unfounded idea that poverty is a form of moral failure. The poor are shiftless and lazy.

“For many,” wrote Jeb Bush, wannabe Bush III, in a chapter devoted to “Restoration of Shame” in his book, “Profiles in Character,” “it is more shameful to work than to take public assistance – that is how backward shame has become.”

And here is how backward Republicans have become. They would rather spend a fortune tracking down a handful of welfare abuses than spend that money on the poor.

Case in point, last year LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services released data showing 3,000 Electronic Benefit Transfer transactions had taken place in bars, liquor stores and smoke shops between January 2011 and November 2013. Big deal? Not really. There were 1.725 million EBT transactions in that time, so fraud, if it really was fraud, accounted for two-tenths of 1 percent.

Last week, we learned that the DHHS’s welfare fraud detectives only referred 16 cases for prosecution over the past three years. Talk about a waste of taxpayer money.

The truth is that most of the people who seek public assistance do so reluctantly. They are employed, but they work at jobs that don’t pay living wages and don’t provide benefits. We need generous, enlightened programs to assist those in need through no fault of their own.

I have heard conservative Christians insist that Christ’s instructions to his disciples, “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” applies only to individuals, not to governments. They subscribe to George H. W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light doctrine of voluntary charity.

A Thousand Points of Light is a pretty idea, but the problems of the poor in this country are too vast and systemic to be left to church food pantries and bake sales. We need to knit a stronger safety net beneath the less fortunate and we need to stop demonizing those who are the victims of an economic system rigged in favor of the wealthy.

As Pope Francis told the United Nations, “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”

You don’t do that by shaming your neighbors.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • David Craig

    Nailed it! Well done.

  • Bowdoin81

    Extreme poverty exists in the world, but we can be proud that in the USA, very,very few of the poor are in a state of extreme poverty, where they lack food, clothing and shelter. Most Americans who meet that description are afflicted by mental illness or addiction and refuse or can’t avail themselves of help.
    People living in sub-Saharan Africa on less than $1.90 a day wouldn’t consider a Mainer with a snowmobile to be poor.

    • EABeem

      We don’t live in sub-Saharan Africa. Someone in temporary need of food assistance should not have to become penniless to receive help. Next LePage will be proposing we bring back the poor farms. There is a war on the poor in this country and the good people have to fight back against the greedy and the self-interested.

      • Bowdoin81

        Your remarks were in the context of the pope’s message about the poor and how conservative Americans should conduct themselves. I say Americans – period – should be proud that we have a system in which our poor are vastly better off than people living in extreme poverty elsewhere in the world and poor people throughout human history. It’s okay to celebrate successes while also looking at what else needs to be done.
        The system that has achieved these results is one based on individual liberty and free enterprise, with centralized government solutions an inconsistently effective last resort.

        • EABeem

          We have a managed economy that depends greatly on corporate welfare. Yes, we do better than undeveloped countries in taking care of the poor, but we do not do as well as most developed countries.

          • Bowdoin81

            Venezuela has a managed economy, with its corresponding long lines to buy necessities like food and toilet paper.
            The USA has a mixed economy, and the closer we get to a “managed economy,” the worse off are our poor.
            We can end corporate welfare at least at the national level if only our Congress had the will to do so. Sadly, their use of the tax code and the regulatory system is how they wield their power and get so many American citizens, non-profits, and corporate citizens to suck up to them. Make the tax code three pages long and stop Congress from using it to incentivize or punish behavior by businesses and individuals. Take some powers away from regulatory agencies and reduce the impact of lobbyists in DC.
            As for how the US treats our poor, read this Brookings piece for a realistic take:

          • James Post

            Is allowing corporations a full acquisition price tax deduction in the year of purchase of a capital asset a form of corporate welfare?

    • Kevin McCarthy

      Poverty is relative the world over. That our “poor” are better off compared to those who most likely have never seen a snowmobile is hardly a measure of success.

  • James Post

    Is it fair to say that Lyndon Johnson slightly over promised what his war on poverty was going to achieve? How much have we spent on income transfers (excluding Social Security) in the last 50 years? We can ask these questions and still be compassionate people.

    I don’t think the poor are lazy, but why do so many on the left ignore the problem of absent fathers as a significant contributor to the problem of poverty?

    Intact families have much more favorable economic results. Yes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and many others can emerge from single mother led families, but it sure is not ideal, and why can’t some more of you on the left mention that?

    Mr. Beem, since you tell us the economy is tilted in favor of the rich, tell us which economic system, from what country, you would like to see in this country. I honestly don’t think, for example, that you can extrapolate the Denmark, Sweden, Norway economic approach to a country of our size, diversity, and territorial size.

    Mr Beem might also tell us what he feels his marginal federal income tax rate should be to do his part to resolve poverty. How much more are you willing to pay in federal income tax to help the poor?

    Now, surely, since I don’t take Mr Beem’s article and state my
    unconditional support for every word he says, I can expect to be called
    heartless, and a lot worse. Truth is, we have a tough time figuring out how we can get
    people out of poverty, and that has been the case for as long as I have
    been alive, and I am not young.

    One thing we should all be able to agree on is that eliminating poverty is a vexing problem, and nothing the government has done in the last 50 years shows much promise of ending poverty.

  • from the left

    Edgar I appreciate you. However you are in a rut with your writing. Its the same thing each week.

    • EABeem

      If you mean the constant LePage lament, I understand but there is no way to avoid the elephant in the room. My recent columns, however, have dealt with the Appalachian Trail- Baxter State Park friction, historic preservation in Portland, differences between Yarmouth and Brunswick, Donald Trump, the OPEGA investigation, poverty and, next week, the refugee crisis. In general, I aim to vary subjects by doing something personal one week, local the next, statewide the third and national/international the fourth. What would you like me to write about? I am open to suggestions.

      • James Post

        Give us your view of the imprisonment of Leopoldo Lopez in Venezuela when you do the international articles. Explain to us your view of the basic product shortage in Venezuela. Discuss the Hollywood love affair with Che Guevara. And, on the other side of the spectrum, discuss the contradiction between the Republicans opposition to abortion, and their cheering of Clint Eastwood at the 2012 convention, as Dirty Harry has had several of his girlfriends’ pregnancies aborted. Discuss why we seem to be OK with full commercial relations with China and Saudi Arabia, but still have people opposed to ending the Cuban embargo.

        • EABeem

          I have a relative who works in Venezuela, so one of these days I probably will get around to it. Yes, our hypocrisy with regard to international relations is well-known. The terrorists who attacked on 9/11 were all Saudis, but we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

          • James Post

            What about the love affair with Che?

  • Legal Non Alien

    Helping the poor doesn’t mean you should create more poor people to do so.

    • EABeem

      The wealthy do not pay their fair share. Increase taxes on the rich.

      • Legal Non Alien

        what do you consider fair?

        • EABeem

          A higher tax on unearned income than on earned income. A higher tax on the wealthy. It used to be over 50%. Now it’s 34% and falling.

          • Legal Non Alien

            The top 10% pay 90% of the taxes. That’s plenty unless you believe in stealing more from them is fair….