Republicans have been telling a white lie, but nothing about it is little. Specifically, it’s a lie to poor white voters that Republicans have their best interests at heart – and crucially, that theirs is the party that will best protect those interests.
We saw it during the campaign in Donald Trump’s promises to return blue collar jobs to poor, rural Americans even as Trump products continued to be manufactured overseas; during the transition with his early pick of a labor secretary known for opposing the minimum wage; and we saw it again just this week in a leading Republican’s insistence that poor people must choose between buying a new smartphone and having health insurance.
“Americans have choices – and they’ve got to make a choice,” Jason Chaffetz said Tuesday on CNN in defending the GOP’s elimination of the individual mandate in its proposed replacement for Obamacare. “So maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
He would later seek to clarify his remarks in an interview with Fox News, acknowledging the remarks didn’t come out as “smoothly” as he intended. “What we’re trying to say,” he began, is that “people need to make a conscious choice, and I believe in self-reliance.”
It’s an interesting follow up because while it acknowledges how poorly his initial remarks were received, he hasn’t actually softened them any. (Though he did add in an aside: “We want people to have access to an affordable health care product,” even though repealing the individual mandate would actually accomplish the opposite.)
Instead Chaffetz made put what had been subtext in text: by stating he believes such choices are appropriate he’s playing into an old Republican trope that poverty is a choice and that poor people deserve their fate because poverty can be attributed to personal, not systemic failure.
There are a lot of reasons such arguments set my hair on fire. It’s a ridiculous comparison, akin to arguing if people who can’t pay their rent should never have gone out and bought that lamp by which to read and write things in the first place.
For one thing, getting new smartphone – even a new iPhone – is not a regular cost like health insurance: it’s a onetime expenditure. It’s also something that costs in the hundreds, not thousands of dollars annually (a year of individual insurance is over $6,000). And all that assumes a best-case scenario where people don’t get shot or run-over or diagnosed with a devastating illness, as they do all the time, and as poor people are especially likely to have happen.
Consider that having a working phone is not a luxury. Like having a lamp in your apartment it is an essential tool people rely on to do the very sort of thing so dear to Chaffetz’s heart – finding an keeping steady employment. We know it’s not a luxury in part because phones and internet are in fact already subsidized by the government for welfare program participants (read: poor people), and the program originated under such liberal leadership that of President Reagan.
The remark isn’t a slip of the tongue, as Chaffetz’s follow up made clear. It made waves because it signals a belief with deep roots in the Republican party, one that surfaces regularly around conversations about whom should be eligible for welfare programs and deserving of food stamps.
We saw a particularly pronounced example of it, and one that resonates with what we heard from Chaffetz, in a Heritage Foundation report that seemed to suggest that poor people aren’t actually poor because they own appliances. That the cost of appliances has been dropping for decades while such essentials as education and health care have dramatically increased didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the report’s authors.
Nor did it so much as rustle the conscience of conservatives like Bill O’Reilly who, when the report came out in 2011, tellingly cited the finding that 55% of poor people have cell phones in asking: “How can you be so poor and have all this stuff?”
But what’s perhaps most insulting of all is that Chaffetz and the Republicans who parrot like talking points are condescending to the very people that helped upset the presidential election and elect their party in a historic Republican wave.
In making it harder for poor people to access health insurance, Republicans aren’t just insulting and endangering the most vulnerable Americans, they’re literally preparing to strip the individual mandate from the very citizens they’re mandated to protect.