Americans are a generous people. In 2017, everyday citizens along with multi-millionaires donated an astounding $410 billion to a variety of qualified charities and religious organizations.
We donate because it feels good to buy a Christmas present for a child in need or purchase a box of groceries for the local food pantry. The images of little kids receiving a warm meal or a shiny new bicycle can bring us to tears. We’re moved by the stories of shelters providing a safe place for victims of domestic violence or stable housing for homeless veterans.
We want to help our neighbors, but for some reason, the same individuals we gladly assist during the holidays are scorned and vilified when their assistance comes not from a charity or church, but instead from a government institution.
Our demonization of those seeking government aid was cemented in the late ’70s when Ronald Reagan made the term “welfare queen” synonymous with fraud. Reagan used white America’s racial biases – in particular, our bias against single black moms – as a tool to propagate a myth that welfare recipients were a bunch of lazy, undeserving con artists with inferior morals.
The lie took hold, and Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty morphed into a war against fellow Americans down on their luck. Widows and single moms were no longer viewed as individuals needing support in their time of need, but were shamed for being “on the dole.”
Despite reforms that made welfare more difficult to obtain and much more difficult to defraud, the myths persisted. Recently, President Trump joined the chorus by using his favorite target, immigrants, as another tool to spread contempt for government programs. The administration announced plans to limit the ability for immigrants to become legal permanent residents and, eventually, citizens, by punishing them for accepting small amounts of government aid.
By playing another race card, this time the scary immigrant one, Trump is expanding his attack on all who seek a better life in America and continuing a dangerous narrative that equates poverty with slothfulness.
The scare tactic plays well in Arizona, where a large number of first- and second-generation immigrant families reside and where one-in-four children live in poverty. Instead of seeking ways to alleviate this poverty or strengthen families, our Republican-led legislature has taken a bludgeon to the programs designed to keep our most vulnerable residents healthy and off the streets.
During the Great Recession, the Legislature slashed Medicaid and eliminated KidsCare (the Children’s Health Insurance Program), kicking low-income kids and those on organ transplant lists to the curb. In recent years, they became the first and only state in the nation to restrict families on TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) to a one-year lifetime limit, even though the federal government provides block grants for five years. The small monthly stipends given to families on TANF pay for basic necessities such as toilet paper and toothpaste. Imagine being in a situation so dire that one must decide between food or shampoo, life-saving treatments or rent.
Politicians wishing to curb government aid have set a deliberate trap to lure us into believing the vast majority of assistance is squandered. Sadly, many of us have taken the bait. Though we may know or have been part of families that have required some sort of aid due to a sudden job loss, medical emergency, or a host of other factors, we erroneously believe these individuals are the exceptions instead of the rule. The other families – the nameless, faceless ones using government assistance – are somehow different than us.
And if this is how we view those on assistance, as individuals undeserving of our care, then how will we ever move to a place of solutions?
Poverty is a complex issue, and government will never be able to completely eradicate it. But ignoring it or finding ways to condemn those living its reality is neither helpful nor moral. If we want to move the needle, then we have to start by putting aside falsehoods and stereotypes. We have to start by treating our fellow neighbors with dignity and compassion.
As we gather round a table of abundance this Thanksgiving, we’d do well to consider those who came before us, the original American colonists. They relied on the generosity of a people whose lands we inhabited. We should have the grace to extend that generosity to others in need.