The disconnect between residents and the ruling class seems to grow greater by the day. When those in power have little to no knowledge about the day-to-day lives of the people who they represent, those officials craft laws that benefit the people they do know: themselves and their wealthy donors.
This divide was brought to light again this past week during a discussion about the American Health Care Act, the Republicans’ proposed replacement for the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. During an interview on CNN, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told anchor Alysin Camarota: “Americans have choices, and they’ve got to make a choice. So rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
Chaffetz’s response was both ill-informed and arrogant. His backhand to those who are struggling to pay premiums – if they can afford a plan at all – ignores the massive gap between the cost of an iPhone (about $700 new) and the cost of health insurance. A 2015 report in Forbes magazine noted that annual health care costs for a family of four now exceed $24,000; of that total, employees pay about $10,500, split between monthly premiums and point-of-care costs. Projections are that those costs will increase should the AHCA pass, so the $700 someone might save by passing on the iPhone would only make a minimal dent in their insurance costs.
But more than the math, Chaffetz’s comment perpetuates a myth about people in or near poverty, that they are poor because they make bad choices or are lazy, and that those who are better off economically have free rein to question or limit the choices of the less fortunate.
Stephen Pimpare, who teaches American politics and public policy at the University of New Hampshire, wrote a response to Chaffetz in the Washington Post in which he argues, “This insistence that people would not be poor if only they would try harder (is) … the logic at the heart of efforts to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, to drug-test people collecting unemployment insurance or to forbid food stamp recipients to buy steak and lobster.” This thinking ignores research that shows most Medicaid recipients work at least one job, that drug testing the unemployed is expensive and nets few positive tests, and that those on food assistance programs generally don’t buy higher-end items.
Chris Stewart, CEO of Katy Trail Community Health, told me, “Often times, the folks who are living on the margins might have made the same choices that the rest of us make. … We all make choices that sometimes in the long run are not good for us but the implications of it are so different for some people.”
Stewart, who also heads the Community Impact initiative for Sedalia-Pettis County United Way, added: “The difference between someone living in poverty and someone not living in poverty is there are folks around people not living in poverty who can help lift them out of those bad choices. There aren’t for folks who are living in poverty.”
Stewart and Pimpare both also took on the misconception that hard work is enough to pull a person out of poverty. Stewart said, “The sense that, ‘We’re in America and if everyone could just pull themselves up by their bootstraps (they) can achieve,’ actually is not the case. If you are living in the margins, your options are so much more limited.”
Pimpare wrote: “(T)his stubborn insistence that people could have more money or more health care if only they wanted them more absolves the government of having to intervene and use its power on their behalf. In this way of thinking, reducing access to subsidized health insurance isn’t cruel, it’s responsible, a form of tough love in which people are forced to make good choices.”
Stewart has seen increases in two important areas: the number of people in Pettis County living in poverty and the number of “people who have a more privileged life … choosing not to interact with people who are living in the margins.” Because of this disconnect, the fortunate “feel entitled” to question others’ choices.
Pimpare offered a couple of observations about those so-called questionable decisions.
“Set aside the fact that … a smartphone may be your only access to email, job notices, benefit applications, school work and so on,” he wrote. “Why do we begrudge people struggling to get by the occasional indulgence? … Why do we insist that if you are poor, you should also be miserable?”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.