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Using the poor as political bargaining chips

Both of those programs have been involved in talks to avert a debt ceiling crisis. So that’s about 128 million Americans whose well-being, and perhaps their survival, is at stake in a political battle where they have become bargaining chips.

Of course, it shouldn’t have come to this. There’s no real link between the debt ceiling, which covers previously-authorized spending, and the future spending that Republicans insist must be cut. As you’ve heard often by now, the debt cap needs to be raised because of decisions Congress already has made — including $7.4 trillion in new debt that was added during the presidency of Donald Trump.

By the way: As a percentage of the nation’s economy, the debt was higher at the end of Trump’s term than ever before in the nation’s history. Republicans voted three times during the Trump years to raise the debt ceiling.

But now that the White House is home to a Democrat, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his Republican colleagues say they won’t allow the United States to cover that debt they agreed to run up unless Democrats cave in and cut future spending. McCarthy says a “red line” for Republicans — something they must get President Joe Biden to accept in exchange for their votes to avoid a national debt default — is a new set of work requirements for those who receive federal aid.

Some people see a clear moral logic to McCarthy’s stance: Able-bodied people ought to be willing to earn their own way, they say, and letting anybody draw federal dollars without working invites laziness. As McCarthy told reporters earlier this month, "What work requirements actually do (is) help people get a job." Those were his words.

But that’s not actually true. Nineteen separate research studies have concluded that those requirements have had “no or little positive impact on employment,” according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That’s because, according to the studies, most people who can work already are working, and those who aren’t working are often providing care to children or older family members, or they have health problems, either physical or mental. And, by the way, SNAP already requires able recipients from ages 18 to 49 to prove they’re working.

The false narrative that federal aid is going to millions of people who could hold a job but refuse to do so has been a staple of conservative political arguments for almost a half-century. It’s being touted now in support of specific work requirements advocated by Republicans that would cut spending on SNAP and Medicaid by $120 billion over the next decade.

Before you say that sounds like a lot of money, do the math: It is 1.6 percent of the debt that was added during the Trump administration, which included a tax cut mostly benefiting higher-income taxpayers and corporations. Most of the Trump tax cuts expire in 2025, and a new Congressional Budget Office study estimates that not extending them could cut the future debt by $3.5 trillion.

McCarthy and his Republican allies say tightening tax loopholes to hold down the debt is a non-starter. They’d rather take the money away from poor people by cutting food stamps and Medicaid. That’s the truth.

So let’s understand this: People who receive Medicaid and SNAP benefits often confront extraordinary challenges in trying to find work. As unskilled workers in low-wage jobs, many of them cycle in and out of employment. A police record, which a lot of people in low-income communities easily acquire, makes it even harder to win a prospective employer’s trust. Limited transportation options and learning disabilities can make even the application process onerous.

In short, myriad factors may make some people all but unemployable. But are we comfortable with concluding that people who can’t hold a job should go hungry, or lose healthcare coverage?

In fact, no research supports the idea that kicking people out of aid programs makes them better able to help themselves. To the contrary, recent studies suggest that the longer families receive stable and predictable support, the better they do — and the better the next generations do, as well.

That’s the practical assessment from the realm of social science, but the moral imperative is clear, too. Consider what the three major Abrahamic religions teach: Both Judaism and Christianity embrace a clear declaration from Psalm 82:, which says, “Defend the poor and the orphan; deal justly with the poor and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” And the third pillar of Islam is zakah, which requires Muslims who earn enough to give a percentage of their income to help the poor and needy.

All of this suggests that we ought to demand that our political leaders pay more attention to who we aspire to be as caring humans. Perhaps, in fact, our current strife arises in our alienation from that wholesome notion. Charles Darwin posited that compassion was, in his words, “the almost ever-present instinct” among humans – leading to the emergence of homo sapiens as the world’s dominant species. If the selfishness of the Republican approach to the debt ceiling is actually contrary to human nature, surely it can’t stand.

Compassion may be, in the end, what elevates us above the predators of the wild, enabling us to advance our civilization toward realizing its higher goals. Just now, however, there’s reason to worry that political ambition is a stronger force than our compassionate instinct.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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