The Appalling Stance of Rand Paul
December 12, 2013, 4:00am

The Appalling Stance of Rand Paul


I don’t put much past politicians. I stay prepared for the worst. But occasionally someone says something so insensitive that it catches me flat-footed.

Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said Sunday on Fox News: “I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers.”

This statement strikes at the heart — were a heart to exist — of the divide between conservatives and liberals about whether the social safety net provides temporary help for those who hit hard times or functions as a kind of glue to keep them stuck there.

Whereas I am sure that some people will abuse any form of help, I’m by no means convinced that this is the exclusive domain of the poor and put-upon. Businesses and the wealthy regularly take advantage of subsidies and tax loopholes without blinking an eye. But somehow, when some poor people, or those who unexpectedly fall on hard times, take advantage of benefits for which they are eligible it’s an indictment of the morality and character of the poor as a whole.

The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.

We have gone from a war on poverty in this country to a war on the poor, in which poor people are routinely demonized and scapegoated and attacked, and conservatives have led the charge.

They paint the poor as takers, work averse, in need of motivation and incentive.

Well, that is simply not my experience with poverty. I have been poor, and both my parents worked. I grew up among poor people, and almost all of them worked. The problem wasn’t lack of effort, but low pay. Folks simply couldn’t make enough to shake the specter of need.

In fact, the poor folks I knew growing up were some of the hardest working people I have ever known — rising before dawn to pack lunches and sip coffee, trying to get the mind right for a day of toil and sweat that breaks the body but not the spirit.

They were people who wanted what most folks want — to earn an honest wage for an honest day’s work; to live a happy, meaningful life that leaves a mark on the world when they are gone from it; to raise bright, healthy children who go further in life than they did; to be surrounded by family and friends and neighbors — a village — where people support and cared for one another.

That is why I have such a hard time with the conservative argument that helping those in need diminishes their desire to do for themselves, that it suckles them to passivity on a government teat. Hogwash.

To buy into this destructive lie about the character of the poor means you’ve either had no experience being poor, or have no capacity to empathize with their plight.

Being poor is a job unto itself. The daily juggle of supplying the most basic needs — food, shelter, medicine — and the stress of knowing that you are always just one twist of fate away from calamity.

James Baldwin put it best: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

Most people want to work. But sometimes, bad luck comes calling. Sometimes you have a job, but you lose it. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a new one proves elusive.

And following the Great Recession, that is a particular problem. Maybe you are older and employers are less willing to take a chance. Maybe your industry is shrinking and becoming more efficient, getting by with fewer employees. Maybe the jobs you can find are farther from your house than you can travel and you can’t afford to move. The problems are plenty.

But what we shouldn’t do is to tell people who had jobs and lost them, people who want work and can’t find it, that to help them does them a “disservice.”

That is the height of arrogance and callousness. And it’s disrespectful.