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Danielle C. Belton: Will the war on poor people continue in 2014?

  • The Root
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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America 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.

You’d think that the myriad of job and financial crises would have forced our government – namely our Congress – to band together to get America “back to work” or whatever slogan is being used 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.

If you’re broke, it’s your fault. And if it’s not your fault, it’s still your fault.

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 expired, North Carolina already had 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 programs 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 nonexistent work. Forty-seven million Americans were affected by the cut to the food-stamp program in 2013 after Congress could not agree on what should stay or go in the farm bill.

•  Opposition to health care. The Republican half of Congress spent most of the year trying to stop America from getting a watered-down version of the health care everyone else in the free world has. The Republicans were even willing to shut down the government.

•  Family planning. It’s one thing to be against abortion, but the pill? When did oral contraception become controversial? Suddenly, employers who already covered birth control had a problem with it because it was politically expedient.

•  Voter-ID laws. Are you old, black or poor (or all three) and trying to vote? Well, it was harder to do, thanks to the U.S. 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 delivered by midwives at home, and they didn’t have IDs because they were old and did not drive or work anymore. 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.” Employees in both the retail and fast-food service sectors tried to shame their employers into paying them a living wage. 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?

Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist.

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