The Politics of Free Stuff

19 Jul

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By: Adrienne Gavula, MSW, LSW
Relationship Manager, NASW Ohio Chapter

Like everyone else I watched as Mitt Romney said, “If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for, vote for the other guy. That’s what he’s all about. That’s not what I’m about.” Although he was referring to healthcare reform (which is not free – see my last post), the pomposity he showed toward those needing assistance is insulting, and other legislators – regardless of political party – who use this language show insensitivity as well.

Let’s talk about what free means. “Free” means that you are not able to fully provide for yourself and your family. That healthcare is out of reach. That deciding between less healthy food and fresh, healthy items is not an option because money has to last and eating healthy is expensive.

Living in poverty does not mean you are experiencing a luxurious life on the tax payer’s dime. It is constantly worrying about paying the bills so you can have a roof over your head and hoping that you can afford school clothes for your children. It means having to make healthcare decisions based on your pocketbook instead of your doctor’s opinion.

This kind of rhetoric (much like Reagan’s “welfare queens” talk) allows people to look at those living in poverty as the worthy poor versus the unworthy poor and makes it easier to justify cutting safety net programs.

Entitlements are already viewed this way. Social Security, Medicare and unemployment are government entitlement programs that are viewed in positive regard and considered worth saving. They are viewed this way because people who utilize these programs are well-organized and perceived as being able to mobilize their vote.

Then there are food stamps, Medicaid and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), which are viewed as “free” and not worthy of money in the budget. By cutting these programs and offering no alternate ideas of how people will meet their basic needs we are waging war on poor people, not poverty. Those living in poverty are viewed as not able to mobilize their vote because they lack the time, money and support, and they often become voiceless in a political debate where their lives are at stake. This is where social workers can organize!

We work with the most vulnerable in our society. We go to food pantries with our clients where we hope they get a choice in the food they provide to their families. We work with our veterans to find stable, affordable housing. We work to smooth the transition from prison back into society. We care for the aging baby boomers to help them stay at home, rather than institutionalized care. We know that our clients deserve a say, and we know there is nothing free about being poor.

How would you respond to a legislator talking about “free stuff?”

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