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.