Surf & Turf: America’s War on the Poor

As some of you may be aware, Missouri this week tried to carry on what is apparently now a Midwestern tradition of decent-sounding legislation that turns out to be morally cancerous upon the slightest inspection. After Indiana citing religious freedom in a poorly-veiled attempt to protect “persecuted” Christians against the terrorist gays who want nothing more than to continue their unconstitutional state-by-state blitzkrieg of American values (I really wish that were in some way an exaggeration of what the bill’s defenders were saying), now Missouri is helping to ensure that the taxpayer dollar isn’t used to fund the surf-and-turf feasts habitually enjoyed by the poor. The bill, colloquially known as “Surf & Turf,” regulates what welfare recipients can buy with their food stamps, barring them from purchasing “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”  On the surface, this almost seems like a reasonable thing to legislate. After all, if it’s the government’s money, the government can decide how it’s spent, ultimately, and it only seems right that there be some nutritional guidelines as well as an assurance that this money isn’t being squandered on high-price items. I say almost reasonable because this bill is actually about demeaning the poor.

In case sarcasm is a foreign concept to you, food stamp recipients don’t buy filet mignon and lobster, as many small-government types like to claim they do. They can’t afford to, it’s way beyond what the food stamps provide, and they’re spending that type of money on real necessities, like housing, water, electricity, and clothes, to name a few. So why regulate a problem that doesn’t exist? Because it fits with existing stereotypes of what it means to be poor. Dating back to Ronald Reagan, America has been obsessed with the concept of the “welfare queen” and has used that image to define its attitudes toward poverty. Missouri’s bill is directly along those same lines, preventing the imaginary professional moocher from using his or her undeserved handouts to live better than the average American taxpayer.

In addition, the bill reinforces Republican ideas about individual effort and subsequent success. I don’t want to sound too crazy here, but traditional conceptions of the American dream and the Republican economic platform have every interest in saying that the poor are lazy and incapable, if not outright manipulative. It’s easier to think like that, easier to think that those who succeed do so because they work harder or are inherently smarter than those who live below the poverty line. Since the American dream is built around one’s ability to work hard and secure a better life for their children in doing so, it seems positively un-American, if there is such a thing, to claim that some people work as hard if not harder than those who succeed and yet still live in hardship. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it is ultimately the truth. Claiming otherwise is forgoing the rose-tinted glasses for red- white- and blue-tinted goggles that play the national anthem and flash pictures of the Founding Fathers at random intervals, which, while undeniably kickass, is no position to be legislating from. The same is true of so-called “trickle-down” economics. Remember the “class warfare” debacle that was a staple of Republican candidates in the 2012 election? The whole concept of a “moocher class” that needs nothing more than to pull itself up by its proverbial bootstraps was one of the most widely-repeated catchphrases of that campaign, culminating in the Mr. Burns-esque “47 percent” controversy that marred the Romney campaign. Pervasive as it may be, the idea is no less wrong. Think about it this way: if poor people only needed effort to no longer be poor, that would mean that they prefer their current state of receiving minimal welfare benefits to that of middle-class prosperity offered to them. Therefore, to some extent, the poor want to be poor, and are too lazy or stupid to find their way out. Does that sound totally laughable to anyone else? Who, in their right mind, would pick a life of food stamps, of multiple, low-paying jobs over a much more comfortable existence if they had the choice? The choice simply isn’t there, and it’s time that we act like goddamned adults about it. Being poor isn’t a choice, nor is it an inherent personality trait. It’s all about upbringing, opportunity, and luck. The welfare queen, barring the extreme minority of exceptions to every rule, doesn’t exist, and it says volumes about American attitudes towards success that we’ve believed in that concept for so long, all in favor of a hilariously transparent and nefarious economic system, if it can be called that, designed to provide politicians, their top contributors, and their richest constituents with simply put, more spending money which, ironically enough, is at least partly spent on filet mignon and lobster tail.

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