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Food Stamp Cuts Reflect a Class War Against the Working Poor – posted 3/19/2017

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Senate Bill 7, a Republican-sponsored bill that would significantly reduce the number of people who can receive food stamps in New Hampshire, has passed the New Hampshire Senate on a party-line vote. Given the Republican majority in both Houses, it is expected the bill will pass and Governor Sununu will sign it.

The bill is mean-spirited, callous, and without any sense of compassion. I think it is likely to increase hunger and malnutrition in our state. The bill is expected to deprive 17,000 low-income families with children of food stamps. This is literally taking food from the mouths of poor children.

When these families lose their benefits, their food need will not stop. That is one thing that can be said with certainty.

When low-income people have food stamps, they can spend the money they do have on other basic needs like housing or utilities. Without food stamps, precious dollars have to go to food, leaving less for other essential expenses. With inadequate cash, the question becomes where does remaining money go: housing, utilities, medication, school expenses, clothes or child care? Where is the most compelling need, all things considered? It can be a Sophie’s choice.

Right now food stamps is probably the most important public benefit reaching masses of people in the United States. It is so short-sighted to cut this program. Food stamps is a bulwark against hunger, malnutrition and absolute destitution. By leaving available income for other needs, food stamps actually protect against utility shutoffs, evictions and homelessness.

Contrary to conservative fantasy world, great numbers of food stamp recipients are working but they are not making enough money to pay all basic expenses. Yet that does not stop some conservatives from calling food stamp recipients “welfare slaves”. You have to wonder what happened to the moral sense that no one should go hungry.

The program is not perfect and there is some fraud but it remains the most effective and targeted public benefit ever devised in the United States.

New Hampshire had opted for a slightly more generous income and assets test that allows more families to obtain food stamps but any generosity for low-income families is apparently too much.

Hunger and malnutrition aside, Senate Bill 7 is fiscally stupid, downshifting costs from the federal government to cities and towns. 100% of food stamp benefits are paid by federal funds. If people lose their federal benefits, they have the right to go to their home city or town for help and those cities and towns must assist under our local welfare law.

Of course, many probably will not go to local welfare for different reasons (including lack of awareness about the local welfare legal obligation) but if they do, the law mandates cities and towns to “relieve and maintain”. Food need falls squarely within the mandate of local welfare law.

Senate Bill 7 is a direct hit on the local taxpayer but the bill’s sponsors avoid that fact. They talk airily about promoting freedom – freedom from food, actually. They also talk about work requirements. They seem to forget that the Food Stamp program already incorporates work requirements.

There is unintentional irony in this bill. Republicans invoke Hew Hampshire values and state’s rights but this bill is anything but a New Hampshire bill. The bill is forcing the state to adopt a federal asset test. New Hampshire has long had a state waiver which gives the state more flexibility to respond to changing economic circumstances.

Readers of the Monitor may have seen the March 3 letter to the editor from Mary Anne Broshek of Andover. Broshek, who is a genuine expert on food stamps (she was in charge of eligibility at the Department of Health and Human Services for many years) certainly did not see Senate Bill 7 as a New Hampshire bill. She wrote that the bill prohibited state flexibility and sought to solve a problem that does not exist.

She also pointed out that the Republican bill sponsor, Sen. Avard, co-wrote the bill with a lobbyist representing a conservative group pushing similar measure in statehouses around the country. The lobbyist outfit, the Foundation for Government Accountability, is a right wing think tank based in Naples Florida. The bill template for Senate Bill 7 was lifted from a template on their web site with room for fill-in-the-blanks.

The Foundation for Government Accountability is a member of the State Policy Network, a coalition of groups that pressure for a hard right wing agenda in statehouses nationwide. It has close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the billionaire-funded organization of Koch Brothers fame, dedicated to free market fundamentalism.

In her brilliant book of investigative reporting, Dark Money, Jane Mayer unmasks the role of many groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability. Over a period of the last 50 years or so, ultra right wing billionaires have created a powerful network of well-funded think tanks to protect the interests of the 1% and to push radical right wing policies and legislation. They are about overturning all the protections created for working people since the New Deal.

By any objective measure, the right wing has been extraordinarily successful in gaining control of statehouses across America. Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of those chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.

I would submit that the powerful network created by the billionaire class has had much to do with the Republican success. I do not think liberals and progressives appreciate the scope and depth of this network which has been deliberately hidden by the Kochs and their super-rich allies. Mayer, who writes for the New Yorker, lays it out in Dark Money. I think the book is required reading for Democrats and progressives. Democrats do not have anything that remotely matches up against this juggernaut.

We should not see Senate Bill 7 outside the context of a national effort to shred the safety net. The billionaires are making a concerted effort in all states to take away working class gains. Whether it is Steve Bannon talking about deconstructing the administrative state or Grover Norquist saying he wants to reduce the size of government to the size where it can drown in a bathtub, the vision is the same.

President Trump’s budget is a defining document of the ultra-right wing vision. It is a search and destroy mission for almost any federal program that helps low-income and working people. Whether it is Meals on Wheels, Legal Services Corporation, Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps), School Breakfast and Lunch, Community Development Block Grants, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Weatherization, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Trump wants to zero them all out.

It is no exaggeration to say Trump’s budget is an act of class war where the billionaires bludgeon working people. Trump is spitting in the face of his working class supporters. He is showing himself to be the huckster and con man many suspected he would be. He fancies himself like Andrew Jackson but he is more like P.T. Barnum. Bills like Senate Bill 7 and the Trump budget are designed to drive millions more into extreme poverty and hopelessness.

When Senate Bill 7 was in front of the New Hampshire Senate, Republicans pushed an amendment that passed. Instead of affirmatively cutting 17,000 families off immediately, they gave the Joint Health and Human Services oversight committee the right to do it. Speaking on the senate floor, Senator Dan Feltes of Concord gave the perfect response:

“In the words of Ann Richards, ‘you can put lipstick on a pig and name it Monique it’s still a hog'”.

Senate Bill 7 is soulless and needlessly cruel. It flies in the face of what we know about increasing economic inequality and it will only make that inequality worse.

Xenophobia is an American Tradition – 3/5/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/17/2017

March 5, 2017 1 comment

In understanding racism in America, we have paid insufficient attention to xenophobia. Fear and irrational dislike of people from other countries has a long tradition in America. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, episodes of xenophobia have kept recurring.

Trump’s travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven (now six) ┬áMuslim-majority countries as well as his threats to deport millions is not an aberration in American history. It is only the latest example of a long-standing historical pattern.

Going back in American history, nativists and white supremacists have long had an obsession about screening out and deporting those perceived as “undesirables “. Trump is just the latest incarnation.

In the 19th century, proponents of Manifest Destiny, the belief that settlers were destined to expand across North America, often argued the superiority of white Europeans over Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese. Although the history is obscured and forgotten today, eugenics was behind much of the racist ideology.

Racists saw ethnic mixing as leading to degeneration, a big 19th century concern. Newspapers and periodicals of the time frequently ran articles arguing against race-mixing. There was much discussion of selective breeding as a means to improve the human stock.

Some scientists of the mid-19th century expressed concerns about inferior stock polluting the nation’s racial order. For example, Dr. Josiah Nott, a southern surgeon and phrenologist, advocated the need for eugenics to keep the white race pure. To quote Nott in 1844:

“Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian, the latter have sunk into barbarism.”

Slavery and 19th century racism relied heavily on pseudo-scientific justifications. I think racism based on fraudulent science was also the ideological backdrop for the nativism and xenophobia that characterized our later 19th century immigration policy. From the 1880’s through the 1940’s, racist, restrictive immigration policies became a norm.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first act to restrict entry of a specific ethnic group. The law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.

Prejudice against the Chinese was widespread especially in the West Coast states. Whites could rob, beat, and murder Chinese people with impunity. Anti-Chinese riots and lynchings were part of the picture. Many Americans saw the Chinese as taking their jobs.

While Chinese workers were widely seen as reliable and willing to work without complaint, they were scapegoated by politicians for allegedly depressing wages. Economic depressions and the desperation of working people created fertile soil for racist demagoguery.

Many Americans of varied political stripes saw the Chinese as an unassimilable race. There was a popular belief the Chinese were dirty and carried germs and disease. The Chinese were victims of a national phobia, the Yellow Peril. Sadly, there were few public voices who spoke out against the virulent anti-Chinese racism.

The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in effect for 61 years until President Franklin Roosevelt led the effort to repeal it. Chinese-Americans had their own Jim Crow-like experience where they were subject to discriminatory laws and practices. That harm is rarely acknowledged.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Japanese experience as well. From the start, the immigration of Japanese also met with a negative response. Nativists feared Japanese immigration. Like the Chinese, Japanese people were segregated and denied employment, except for menial jobs. Most western states passed legislation forbidding intermarriage between Asiatics and Caucasians.

While the history deserves far deeper treatment, I did not want to ignore the Japanese-American internment. This is one of the most spectacular examples of xenophobia in American history. Under an Executive Order issued on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans into camps. 62% of the internees were American citizens. Nearly 130,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated. This action came in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

It is now widely recognized that the Japanese-American internment was a product of racism and not justified by any military necessity.

The Chinese and the Japanese were certainly not the only victims of xenophobia. In the early 20th century, xenophobia reemerged prominently in regard to other regions. A series of three laws highlight the trend. In 1917 Congress passed an Immigration Act which imposed a literacy test on immigrants. The law barred not only those unable to read, it also excluded “feeble-minded persons”, “idiots”, “epileptics”, “anarchists”, and all immigrants from Asia.

Shortly after in 1921 and 1924 Congress passed an Emergency Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act to limit the flow of immigrants into the country. The Johnson-Reed Act limited the quota to 2% of the total immigrants from a given country living in the United States in 1890.

The law aimed at greatly reducing immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians and Eastern European Jews. From the late 19th century to 1920, there had been a huge increase in Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe, in part, to escape pogroms.

The explicit purpose of the Johnson-Reed Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”. Immigration restrictionists sought to maintain the racial preponderance of native-born Americans. Also, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution in 1917, the Red Scare of 1919 raised fears about foreign radicals importing revolution.

As was true with racism against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, anti-semitism relied on contradictory stereotypes about Jews. Stereotypes ran the gamut. Jews were both money-grubbing capitalists and Bolshevik revolutionaries. In the period before World War II, anti-semitism in America was far more accepted than it is now.

The Johnson-Reed Act ultimately succeeded in tremendously reducing Southern European and Eastern European immigration, especially that of Jewish people. But now we can see the cost and the tragedy. The law acted to prevent millions of refugees from escaping the Holocaust. People could not get out of Europe when they needed to. The United States was not alone among countries in closing the gates. Many millions needlessly perished in the Nazi death camps and gas chambers. The Johnson-Reed Act proved catastrophic.

Though it is not widely known, Anne Frank was denied immigration to the United States twice. Her father, Otto Frank, appealed to the Roosevelt Administration. FDR refused. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

It is hard to ignore the historical parallels with our current period. Refugees seeking to escape the war in Syria and undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are in a similar desperate situation to people who wanted out of Europe in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. They are running for their lives.

In his view of the world, President Trump has dehumanized and criminalized the category of refugee. He sees refugees as potential terrorists – not as people trying to escape desperate situations. In his stereotyping, he is Xenophobe-in-Chief. What he is doing with Syrian refugees is no different than what earlier racists did against the Chinese, Japanese, and the Jews.

Just for the record, I would note that far more could be said about our xenophobic history, particularly actions against Latinos. It would be wrong not to mention the Mexican Repatriation.

James Baldwin once wrote:

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

Xenophobia is as American as cherry pie. Trump fits right in. It is late in the game for any pollyanna views of our history.