America has a history of respecting each citizen's pursuit of the "American Dream": the idea that anyone, regardless of social circumstances, can lift themselves out of poverty to achieve success. Unfortunately, for many, this ideal is unrealistic. Millions of American are stuck in a cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to escape without government assistance. But many politicians have never experienced, or even witnessed, a life of need; in fact, a number of GOP politicians have made offensive comments about poverty that reveal just how disconnected many of them are from the people they are supposed to serve.
Poverty is not a personal choice. There are a number of systemic issues that contribute to some individuals being simply unable to live beyond paycheck-to-paycheck. For example, let's say a woman who grew up in a housing project had substandard education because her school wasn't given enough resources. Since she wasn't taught sex-education in school, she becomes pregnant at a young age. While trying to support her child, she works 40 hours a week at a local fast food restaurant, which pays $7.25 an hour (the national average minimum wage). This means that she makes just over $1,000 a month. Since the average parent spends $50 a week on the child, this is hardly enough to buy food, basic supplies, and pay rent.
As you can see from this example, poverty isn't so black-and-white, and it certainly doesn't suggest laziness; rather, it suggests that many people are doing everything they can to escape the cycle of poverty that political decisions continue to perpetuate.
Unfortunately, many politicians still don't understand this. For reference, here are some of the most offensive things politicians have said about poverty:
Poverty Is The Result Of Lazy Men In "The Inner Cities"
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who helped author a new health care bill that would cost millions of the most vulnerable Americans access to basic health care over the next decade, doesn't seem to understand much about how essential health care is to people on a limited income. In an interview in 2014, Ryan also seemed to show how little he understands about poverty in general.
"We have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work; and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with," Ryan said.
Ryan later stated that he had been "inarticulate" in his statements.
People Living In Poverty Are Making the Wrong Financial Decisions
While defending the AHCA, House Republican Jason Chaffetz suggested that Americans who can't afford to cover the cost of health care should re-think their financial decisions; specifically, he stated that they need to stop buying iPhones.
"Americans have choices," he said. "And they’ve got to make a choice. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest that in health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves."
This paternalistic comment suggests that Chaffetz sees poor Americans as children who need help making financial decisions. It also perpetuates the misperception that poor Americans are not actually trying to lift themselves out of poverty, but are simply living off government handouts to afford luxuries, which is far from the case.
The Bible Justifies Strengthening Food Stamp Requirements
Food stamps are necessary for many Americans who simply don't make enough of an income to afford basic necessities like groceries. Some of the individuals, like those with mental or physical disabilities, can't work full-time to pay for any of their basic expenses. But Texas Representative Jodey Arrington fought to strengthen work requirements for food stamps — and he used a biblical verse to make his point.
"In the Scripture tells us... 'for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'"
Several theologians told The Washington Post that this biblical verse refers specifically to people who can work but choose not to, which is hardly the case when it comes to contemporary American poverty.
Poverty Is The Result Of "Slothfulness and Laziness"
Congressional Republican candidate John Koster suggested that social safety nets for those in poverty who need an extra boost to get on their feet are rewarding "slothfulness and laziness" and create a sense of entitlement.
"Under this administration it has become a system that punishes those who dare to dream, those who dare to invest, those who dare to work hard or succeed," Koster said in a 2011 speech. "It seems to reward the mediocrity — dare I say it, slothfulness and laziness — of those who choose not to do those things. Furthermore, it creates a dependency on government programs, even an addiction I would say, by virtue of the sense of entitlement that it creates."
Koster's depiction of lazy, entitled citizens who are addicted to taking advantage of government programs is simply not accurate.
The Poor Don't Want To Be Healthy
Kansas Republican Roger Marshall, who supports the AHCA, actually said that the poor don't want health care, and that covering their medical bills with federal funds isn't worth the expense because they won't take care of themselves.
“Just like Jesus said, 'The poor will always be with us,' there is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves," Marshall said in March. "I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don’t want health care. The Medicaid population, which is [on] a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising. And I’m not judging, I’m just saying socially that’s where they are."
Poor People Are "Morons"
And lastly, a quote from our very own president. The Daily Show's Trevor Noah found an old interview of Donald Trump from 1999 stating that poor people are "morons." If you don't believe me, you can watch the clip above.
''My entire life, I've watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were," Trump said in a 1999 New York Times interview. "And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn't the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They're morons."
Clearly, a billionaire who was given a million-dollar loan from his father to start his own business is the last person who can lecture us on what it takes to rise out of poverty. Hopefully now that Trump is president, he can have a more nuanced and understanding view of the poverty that is a daily reality for so many Americans.
Poverty is not a choice, and it is certainly not the result of an intent to deceive the government to receive handouts. Over 40 million Americans live below the poverty line, and in order to get out of it, they need some assistance to get on their feet and receive life-saving services through health care or food stamps. Some politicians could really benefit from actually speaking to people living in poverty before making judgments that affect their policy decisions.