We remember when income inequality was a thing in discussions around our nation’s political dinner table. Back then, we were not distracted by the latest twitter storm from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a humanitarian crisis on our southwestern border, Russia’s interference in our democratic elections, the prospect of North Korea lobbing nuclear missiles towards a U.S. target, distinguishing between good guys and bad at a Nazi rally, whether or not NFL players were taking a knee or if we had to reconsider Canada friend or foe.
It wasn’t all that long ago that we were fully engaged in a debate about the uneven distribution of wealth in the United States, creating a gap between the rich and regular Joes and Janes that has been growing dramatically, by every major statistical measure, for some 30 years.
Well, we need to turn down the volume on our president if only to pay attention to how the purse strings of Congress are being drawn. Republicans are moving ahead to further exacerbate the income gap — and it will hit West Virginia hard.
A pernicious piece of legislation, a federal lawsuit and a House budget outline are just the latest attempts to keep the rich in safe harbor while exposing everyone else to punishing winds, especially those who rely on government assistance, affordable health care and a fair shake.
First, the House farm bill would change rules on SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — imposing strict work requirements on between 5 million and 7 million recipients nationwide. We can debate if that is good policy, but field tests of the rules — including a trial here in West Virginia — show that they do not have a significant impact on employment of able-bodied adults without dependents. But it does lessen the SNAP caseload. In other words, it keeps food off the table.
For additional local context, there is this: 14.9 percent of West Virginia households faced food insecurity between 2014 and 2016. Also, households receiving SNAP benefits increased 50 percent between 2006 and 2016. Here’s the kicker: 330,000 West Virginians received SNAP benefits in 2017, including one in three children in the state.
Second, House Republicans released a proposal this past week that would balance the nation’s budget in nine years — on the backs of Medicare and Medicaid recipients. And just so you know, Republicans are also targeting Social Security. These elected representatives are the same people who nearly doubled the annual budget deficit to more than $1 trillion each and every year as far as the eye can see. Why? See their tax cut last December that richly rewarded the donor class. See the pennies in your own pocket by way of comparison.
Third, there is a federal lawsuit — supported by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate — to allow insurance companies to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. With Republicans taking major swings at the Affordable Care Act piñata and running up premiums in the process, it won’t be long before they will want to throw all insurance risks — but mostly the sick and elderly — overboard. If you have a pre-existing condition, that targeted sink-or-swim population includes you. In West Virginia, according to one estimate, that’s about 800,000 people — or nearly half of the state’s population.
All of this — coincidentally — was happening while Philip Alston, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur, was presenting his findings about poverty in America.
“In any country, but particularly a wealthy one, the persistence over a very long period of time of 40 million people living in poverty must be a cause for concern,” Alston said.
Alston, who planned his tour of the United States before Trump was elected, published his report on June 1 after visiting California, Alabama, Puerto Rico and West Virginia at the end of last year.
He said our nation’s response to poverty has been “neglectful at best” over the last five decades, but he singled out the Trump administration for a “dramatic change of direction,” including policies “deliberately designed” to remove basic welfare protections for the poor.
And if you wonder, as did Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, why the U.S. was being studied when there is so much poverty elsewhere, remember this: The United States of America is, by far, the richest country in the world and we are conspiring to take insurance coverage away from those most in need, giving tax cuts to our most wealthy and taking food off the table of those who are hungry.
All of that is morally reprehensible.