The bluebirds of happiness are chirping away in our nation's treetops these days, for America is now in the fifth year of economic recovery. Let's all sing "Happy Days Are Here Again," for stock prices are reaching record highs, corporate profits are soaring, and even the unemployment numbers are on the mend.
But wait, what's this? Down below the treetops, way down there at the grassroots, poverty not only persists, but is spreading. Also, America's income disparity is worsening as middle-class workers are pushed into lower-wage jobs and poor people are pushed out entirely. Far from "Happy Days," joblessness among our lowest-income families is now the worst on record, having reached the staggering rate of 21 percent.
The plight of the poor in our Land of Plenty is so dramatic that even the Republican leaders of the U.S. House have noticed them and are reaching out with open hands. Unfortunately, they are not offering a helping hand to the needy, but a cold, hard slap in the face. On Sept. 19, in a gratuitous act of political pettiness and human callousness, the GOP slashed $4 billion-a-year out of the food stamp program. Well, they explained, the food stamp subsidy just keeps expanding, despite the recovery our economy is enjoying, so we have to stop the excess.
Apparently these Congress critters never even visit reality. Hello, boneheads — the program has expanded only because all of the "recovery" benefits went to the privileged few at the top, with those at the ground level losing income, thus having to reach desperately for food stamps as a life preserver. In fact, the program lifted about four million Americans above the poverty level last year and kept millions more from sinking deeper into destitution. It's a safety net that's been working exactly as it's supposed to — and GOP ideologues don't want government programs that work.
Also, just for the hell of it, these laissez-fairyland Dickensians added insult to the injury that their cuts would cause for millions of America's hard-hit people.
They tacked on a provision to let the meanest of states force the needy families to submit to humiliating drug tests as the price of obtaining food for their families.
In case you're wondering just how far Republican lawmakers have wandered into the wacky weeds of far-right ideology, note the babbling of Rep. Paul Ryan. Chairman of the House budget committee, this champion of extreme austerity has pushed feverishly for gutting the food stamp program. Why? Because, he rants, it's a government giveaway that turns our safety net into "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency."
A hammock? Food stamp allotments average under $4.50 a day. As for "able-bodied people," does he not know that two-thirds of the program's benefits go to children, the elderly and disabled people?
In a society of gross and growing economic disparity, with mass unemployment and underemployment, food stamps are a minimal measure of our humanity and social morality. Forget the Paul Ryans — here's the guy we should be listening to: "Excuse me if I use strong words," he recently said, "but where there is no work there is no dignity ... We don't want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm."
Pointing directly at the wealthiest elites who push relentlessly to shred government safety nets and make workers powerless, he declared: "(Widening disparity) is the consequence of a world choice, of an economic system that brings about this tragedy, an economic system that has at its center an idol which is called money." Such worship of mammon, he added, creates an economic culture that throws away the well-being of the many to enhance the fortunes of the few. "We have to say no to this throwaway culture. We want a just system that helps everyone," he concluded.
That's the powerful moral voice of Francis, the Catholic Church's new Pope. He ended his comments with a fiery prayer calling on people to oppose the "cult of money" and asking God to "teach us to fight for work." Amen.
(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".)