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The US war on poor people

A man sleeps on the sidewalk under a shop window at Blanc de Chine, in New York.
By Danielle C. Belton
The root

In 2013, if you’re broke, it’s your fault

The United States has always been a tough country if you’re starting from zero. Sure, we praise and salute rags-to-riches stories because they make us feel better about the gross inequities in our society, but the reality is much bleaker. Systemic poverty is real. One job loss or serious health scare can take you from being solidly middle class to couch-surfing destitute.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can move into your mother’s basement, if your mother didn’t lose her basement and the house it was attached to during the housing crisis of 2008.

You’d think that the myriad of job and financial crises would have forced our government — namely our Congress — to band together to get the US “back to work” or whatever slogan they’re using these days, but you’d be wrong. In fact, you could argue the opposite happened. The new poor are just as despised as the old poor. It doesn’t matter how you got to the bottom. Only that you are there and ought to stay there because... you’re not good enough? US citizens think job loss is a communicable disease? Because the US form of capitalism can’t survive without an underclass?

I don’t know. But I did learn in 2013 that if you’re broke, it’s your fault. And if it’s not your fault, it’s still your fault. And that for many politicians, you must be eradicated. And not in a “find you a job and lift you out of poverty” way. More like a “marginalize you and make it harder for you to vote” way.

Here are the ways 2013 decided broke people were the real enemy:

Unemployment Benefits

While there’s a lot of talk about how the federal unemployment-benefits extension expires this weekend, no more unemployment checks are already the reality for people living in North Carolina where they cut jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. It doesn’t matter that a recent White House report stated that “jobless benefits buoy the economy, while keeping 2.5 million workers out of poverty each year.” For many politicians, budget cuts start with people struggling the most.

Food Assistance

When it came time to decide which programmes should get cut and which should stay, it was a no-brainer. If it helps poor people, it should be cut. Why? Because nearly starving to death in the wealthiest country in the world is a great motivator to get non-existent work. Forty-seven million US citizens were affected by the cut to the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Programme, or SNAP, in 2013 after Congress could not agree on what should stay or go in the Farm Bill.

Opposition to Healthcare

The fact that our friends in Canada, France and Britain have healthcare for all and still manage to have functioning societies was lost here in the United States. The Republican half of Congress spent most of the year trying to stop the US from getting a watered-down version of the healthcare everyone else in the free world has. They were even willing to shut down the government. But so-called “Obamacare” happened, anyway, and millions would have rejoiced if it weren’t for the fact that the darn website where you sign up for the healthcare wasn’t made of “fail.”

Family Planning

It’s one thing to be against abortion, but the pill? When did oral contraception become controversial? During the 2012 election. Suddenly employers who already covered birth control had a problem with it because it was politically expedient. And this red-hot hatred for adequate family planning and sexual health for women continued in 2013, specifically targeting women who aren’t wealthy enough to travel long distances to get an abortion or pay for birth control out of pocket, thus leading to poor people having more children, then being punished by society for having these additional children. (Then some would debate whether your impoverished spawn should sweep the floors at their school for the privilege of eating free and reduced lunch.)

Voter-ID Laws

Are you old, black or poor (or all three) and trying to vote? Well, this year, that was harder to do thanks to the Supreme Court deciding that racism has ended. Voter-ID laws started popping up everywhere, but there was a common problem for some people who were born in the rural south: they didn’t have birth certificates because they were born to midwives, not in hospitals, and they didn’t have IDs because they were old and did not drive or work anymore. Then, the process for the elderly poor to get their IDs was arduous and self-defeating. It didn’t matter that some of these people had been voting for decades. They couldn’t vote now, thanks to voter suppression packaged as “voter-fraud prevention.”

Less-Than-Living Wages

A lot of people took lower-wage paying jobs when no other job could be found, and some of those people joined the ranks of the “working poor.” Also known as people who work at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. Employees in both the retail and fast-food service sector tried to shame their employers into paying them a living wage, leading to some workers being fired or even arrested. There was talk that maybe the minimum wage should be raised in response to these protests. But what did Congress have to say? What sound does “silence” make?

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