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Recent proposals highlight society's distrust of the poor

Posted on Apr 27, 2015

In my practice, I assist adults and children applying for Social Security disability benefits – a program designed to assist folks who find themselves unable to work because of severe mental or physical health impairments (or to help care for disabled children).  I cannot count the number of times I have heard “I wish I could get paid to sit at home and not work.”  Before you jump to the conclusion that I only hear this from my friends who are working – hold that thought – I also hear it from those applying for benefits.  This highlights what I see as an ongoing issue in our society – the glamorization and demonization of poverty in America.  The government is giving away cash so poor people can live it up?  Looks like a pretty good gig – until you realize that it is not true.  While I cannot speak for everyone, I have yet to meet one of my clients who is buying “steak and lobster” (more on that later) with their disability benefits. 

Unfortunately, reality has never stopped a good political talking point.  Recently, a number of initiatives and proposals have sprung to life to stop those who are receiving government benefits from “living it up.”  For example, Scott Walker, the current governor of Wisconsin (and a potential 2016 presidential candidate) proposed

that citizens should take a drug test as a condition for receiving government benefits. Perhaps Governor Walker should check the numbers from states that have implemented similar requirements – the number of recipients failing these tests have not amounted to the “aha” moment their proponents had expected/desired.

Likewise, a state lawmaker (Rick Brattin) in Missouri proposing legislation that would restrict the types of food that food stamp recipients should be able to purchase. While the proposed legislation would prohibit the purchase of traditional “junk food” (cookies, chips, soda, etc), the purchase of seafood or steak would also be prohibited.  Why not?  Why would we encourage food stamp recipients to purchase decent food?  In fairness, Mr. Brattin has admitted that the proposed language may need to be “tweaked” (and he has found little support for his proposal)–but he still maintains that food stamp recipients are purchasing “filet mignon and crab legs” with their assistance cards.  I guess that is different than the college quarterback and soon to be first round NFL selection who received his crab legs for free at a local grocery store.  

I am not naive enough to suggest that abuse of the system does not happen – I know that it does.  My concern is that the general public seems to be buying (pardon the pun) the thought that there is an epidemic amongst the poor in our country – an epidemic of living in excess on the minimal amount of aid that they are receiving.  I also agree that the mission of the food stamp program is to provide needed nutrition – but to suggest that a food stamp recipient is somehow “getting over on us” when purchasing a bag of cookies is to suggest that living in poverty somehow prohibits participating in even the most minimal of life’s pleasures.  

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Andy Norfleet
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Andy focuses on Social Security and Disability Law

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