So many of life's problems could be solved, according to conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, if the poor could just learn to keep their knees together until they got married - and if their wealthy and educated counterparts just weren't afraid to shame them into doing so. These pearls of wisdom, particularly the "shaming is good" part, were greeted with loud applause over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Tempting as it might be to dismiss Coulter's remarks as the usual crowd-pleasing nonsense, they fit a little too neatly into the Right's narrative to morally demonize poverty, even as Republicans in Washington pretend to care about poverty by the numbers. Indeed, this shame-the-poor narrative is now being used to justify policies that take needed resources away from the poor, and while it's a self-defeating prophecy for conservatives that doesn't add up, they're still the ones who should be shamed.
Blaming poverty on the moral failings of the poor and criticizing their sex habits and eating habits has always been a favorite conservative sport, dating back to Victorian times. But it has been alternately sickening and fascinating to watch the current crop of American conservatives, particularly those who claim to be devotees of the original social justice champion - Jesus Christ - jump through hoops to try to find new ways to vilify the poor just so they can feel less bad (or at least appear less bad to their followers) when they do nothing to help them.
Whether they're trying to cut benefits to the long-term unemployed or take food from the hungry or restrict women's access to birth control, the standard Republican refrain is that they're just trying to save the poor from themselves. If you believe that, then I've got a bridge to sell you - and it's got some traffic problems.
I'm going to give Coulter the benefit of the doubt and assume that what she was trying to get at, in her not-so-eloquent way, was that people should wait until they are in the best possible space financially and emotionally before they have a baby.
This is not a new concept. It's called family planning, and it has been popular in the Western world for almost 100 years. It also requires one small thing to be effective: affordable and accessible birth control.
If conservatives really want to help low-income people avoid unwanted pregnancies, expanding access to birth control would be a really good place to start. But instead, Republicans across the country are doing everything in their power to make it more difficult for poor people to get contraception, no matter what the people think. This, of course, does not stop them vilifying poor parents when they end up needing public assistance after their children are born.
There are two main anti-hunger programs in America of which poor families can avail themselves: food stamps and school lunches. Conservatives have no qualms about shaming those, either. A recent Daily Show segment was replete with conservative pundits outlining their objections to the kind of food they are "reliably" informed that benefit recipients typically buy. According to these pundits, who must spend an inordinate amount of time following food stamp recipients around supermarkets, poor people should not be using their benefits to buy any of the following items: junk food, dog food, chicken legs, crab legs, fresh sea food, organic produce, wild salmon and, of course, soda. There were so few items deemed acceptable for the poor to buy with their food stamps that Jon Stewart felt compelled to ask this rhetorical question:
What is the right mixture of quality and class-based shame poor people should aim for in their meal planning?
Low-income parents who need help feeding their kids may be easy targets for shaming, but it takes some serious guile to get away with shaming the kids themselves. But Paul Ryan, on his recent war-on-the-war-on-poverty kick, full of twisted research inside big reports, has been very much up to the task. Yes, according to Ryan, all these government food subsidy programs offer poor, hungry people is a "full stomach and an empty soul". Ryan went on to relate the story of a young boy who allegedly told a school supervisor one day that he didn't want a free lunch from a government program anymore:
He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.
What I still don't understand, after years of Ryan's false campaign against poverty, is how such an ardent Catholic, who was raised on his father's Social Security payments, could be so out of touch with real Christian values that he thinks it's okay to try to shame American parents into letting their children go hungry, even when there is food available to them.
So, yes, they're pretty sickening, these cumulative efforts to shame the poor in order to justify cutting programs that help them. But the really aggravating part is that these cuts make no economic sense. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, every dollar spent on food stamps generates approximately $1.84 in economic activity. Public funding for birth control saves the government billions of dollars every year by preventing unintended pregnancies. And studies have shown that children who are fed breakfast at school score 17.5% higher on standardized math tests, become less likely to miss school days, more likely to graduate and less likely to end up unemployed.
But, hey, why let facts get in the way of a good moral argument? It's far more fun to blame the poor for all of society's ills and to try to shame them into eschewing both sex and food until their poverty magically disappears, right? Well, no, it's not fun at all, and poverty in America isn't disappearing - it's getting worse by the day, and the shame for that does not lie with the poor.