Published DateThank God for Congress, right? When things get out of balance in America, we can always count on our legislative stalwarts to recalibrate the scales of justice.
Take greed, for example. The barons of Wall Street, whose raw greed and casino scams wrecked our real economy five years ago, are back to shoving great gobs of bonus pay into their pockets. Meanwhile, the middle class remains decimated, and millions of workaday Americans who were knocked all the way down into poverty are still stuck there. In this nation of fabulous wealth, our poverty numbers are shocking and scandalous: 50 million people are officially poor; another 51 million are "near poor." A third of our country!
You'll be pleased to know, then, that only last week, U.S. House members turned their legislative guns on the greed that's sapping the moral vitality of our society. Unfortunately, their aim was a bit off. Instead of popping the privileged, they hit the most unprivileged: families who need food stamps to make ends meet.
The food stamp program is out of control, they shrieked, noting that it's been expanding even as the unemployment rate has been coming down. Yoo-hoo, knuckleheads, the jobless rate has ticked down largely because job-seekers have become so discouraged by the absence of opportunities that they've quit looking. Plus, getting a job no longer gets you out of poverty — just ask the barista who's making your next latte about the joys of working for poverty pay. Food stamp rolls have reached record numbers, because — guess what? — there are record numbers of Americans in poverty!
Yet, the House called for cutting some $2 billion a year (and 2 million Americans) out of the program. On June 20, however, the members balked — not because the cut was too severe, but because it was not enough for tea party Repubs, who have been demanding a total food stamp gut job, proposing to slash the program by $25 billion a year.
Also, the GOP majority lost the votes of nearly all Democrats by adding a couple of fiendish amendments to punish poor people for the crime of being poor.
One was to put additional work requirements on families seeking the food benefit. "We cannot continue to deny able-bodied people the dignity of work," blathered a worked-up know-nothing named Steve Southerland of Florida. Then, Rep. Michele Bachmann had a tempest in her teapot of a brain, offering her support of Southerland's amendment in a sort of Biblical falsetto: "If anyone will not work, neither should he eat."
Hello, Michele — that's not exactly in keeping with the moral message of the Biblical Jesus. Nor is it in keeping with reality — today's poverty does not stem from any unwillingness to work. Indeed, millions of food stamp recipients are working, but not being paid enough to put adequate groceries on the family table. And many more are in desperate search for jobs that aren't there.
In fairness, though, let me note that House Republicans did try to give hard-hit families something extra in this legislation: drug testing. Following in lockstep with the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council — which has been peddling this vile, insulting slap at poor people all around the country — the House majority added a urine-test provision to its bill. That really puts the mean in "demeaning" — and this from small government poseurs who piously decry government intrusion into people's lives!
Once again, the tea party congress-critters should have used their ever-present Bibles for instruction, rather than just for thumping. They would've learned that Jesus, at the Sea of Galilee, distributed free fish and loaves to everyone there — with no pee-in-the-cup requirement. And if he had wanted to test whether anyone was on drugs, he would've passed cups to bankers first, then to lawmakers.
A society's response to poverty is one measure that speaks directly to its essential character. In particular, a wealthy society's nonchalant tolerance of poverty in its midst, the willingness of that society's leaders to disregard the spread of poverty and the callous calculations by some that it is permissible and even profitable to denigrate those mired in poverty — these are three flashing indicators of a meltdown in our society's moral core.
(Jim Hightower has been called American's most popular populist. The radio commentator and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is author of seven books, including "There's Nothing In the Middle of Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos" and his new work, "Swim Against the Current: Even Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow".)