‘Sweep the Floor’

The Right's Case of Affluenza

The worst part about a congressman suggesting that disadvantaged kids should ‘sweep the floor’ to earn their lunch is that it’s not an unusual sentiment in today’s GOP.

Anna Peisl/Corbis

Whether it’s family, or friends, or close colleagues, everyone is a little different when they’re among their own. It’s a chance for relaxation and honesty. You say things to these people that you wouldn’t to the world at large. And if there’s anything we can conclude from what Republicans say behind closed doors, it’s that they aren’t too fond of poor people.

Take, for instance, Rep. Jack Kingston, who—as part of his bid for the GOP Senate nomination in Georgia—spoke to the Jackson County Republican Party on Saturday. He was among friends, or at least, co-partisans. And as such, he felt free to make a declaration, one he knew his audience might agree with. Commenting on school free lunch programs, he asked, “Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch?” He even suggested that these disadvantaged kids “sweep the floor of the cafeteria” as payment for their meals. Why do this and potentially humiliate kids? “[W]e would gain as a society in getting…the myth out of [people’s] head that there is such thing as a free lunch,” he said.

You could call this a well-meaning but flawed attempt to teach responsibility to low-income children. But even that rankles, since poor children aren’t responsible for their poverty, and have no greater need for responsibility lessons than their wealthier peers. (Indeed, if one Texas judge is to be believed, the scourge of “affluenza” means rich kids are the proper targets for these measures.)

Then again, it’s not as if Rep. Kingston is alone in this rhetoric. Place a Republican amongst his own—or in a situation where he needs to prove or reaffirm his conservatism—and the odds are good that someone will say something disparaging about the disadvantaged.

The emblematic example is Mitt Romney [comment] on the so-called “47 percent” who “pay no income tax” and “feel entitled” to “health care, to food, to housing” (imagine that!). There’s also Newt Gingrich, who—during the GOP presidential primary—proposed a similar idea to Kingston’s: firing janitors at schools in low-income neighborhoods and replacing them with students. As he explained, “The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

Mitt Romney’s former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, may have reintroduced himself as someone with an interest in the lives of the poor, but his rhetoric shows someone who still divides the world into “makers” and “takers,” the latter of whom are poor and need to lose their “dependence” on social services. “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency,” said Ryan last year, as he touted his budget. All of this is why, for all of his new focus on poverty, Ryan still supports huge cuts to our thread-bare safety net.

Conservatives will object to this idea that they disdain the poor, and why wouldn’t they? It’s a nasty thing to accuse someone of animosity toward the least fortunate, and it’s not hard to find examples of Republicans who urge compassion and attention for low-income Americans. So, with that in mind, let’s move from what Republicans say to what they do.

In September, House Republicans passed a plan to slash food stamps by $40 billion over the next ten years, knifing the program and pushing millions of families into food insecurity. The charitable explanation is that this was a misguided attempt at deficit reduction. But then consider this: At the same time they cut food stamps, Republicans also passed agricultural subsidies, a virtual giveaway to large firms and wealthy farmers. If that wasn’t enough, there was also a brief push to require drug tests for welfare recipients, despite the lower incidence of substance abuse among people who receive benefits.

Likewise, Republicans have no desire to extend emergency unemployment insurance, even as the jobless continue to rely on it, a product of our lackluster response to the Great Recession. As Kentucky Senator Rand Paul explained, “When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”

This wouldn’t be so bad if Republicans were also concerned with short-term economic performance, but they aren’t. For every conservative intellectual who is friendly to counter-cyclical economic policy, there are many more GOP lawmakers who want tight money and spending cuts in an economy starved for demand.

And we can’t forget Republican opposition to one of the largest anti-poverty measures in years—the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act, which comes almost fully funded by the federal government. Twenty states—all with GOP governors—have rejected the expansion, denying health insurance to 4.8 million low-income Americans for no real reason at all.

Here’s the truth: What’s shocking about Jack Kingston’s statement isn’t that he said it, but that it’s not out of place with the GOP of 2013. Yes, individual Republicans may have an anti-poverty agenda, and there are conservative thinkers who want the party to do more for low-income people. But for too many Republicans, behind closed-doors and otherwise, the poor aren’t people with interests worth respecting—they’re targets for moralizing and disdain.