Remember Trey Radel, the House Republican from Florida who was recently caught trying to buy $250 of crack cocaine?
Earlier this year, Radel joined his fellow House Republicans in casting a party-line vote to cut $39 billion from SNAP, the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps. He has also voted in favor of making drug testing a mandatory prerequisite for welfare and made a name for himself as an ardent opponent of health reform, voting for its repeal while in office, and after his arrest, even blaming it for his cocaine bust in an official statement.
Radel exemplifies a lot of what’s wrong with the way we view and treat our nation’s poor. He has a clear misconception of who the poor are—an error that is significant because it results in the wasteful and ineffective spending cuts that Radel champions.
The SNAP cuts misunderstand how important the program is for low-income families. The cuts that Republicans like Radel voted for amount to the equivalent of 15 billion meals, or more than half of Feeding America’s total yearly output. That’s on top of the $5 billion reduction that already went into effect on November 1, which cut as much as $36 in monthly benefits from a program used by about one-seventh of our population. For a nation with an annual budget of about $3.5 trillion, these numbers seem negligible. But for a family struggling to make ends meet, they’re devastating—all the more so because of stagnant wages and rising food prices.
Though these cuts will result in a minor reduction of this year’s budget deficit, they may actually add to our long-term national debt. According to the Census Bureau, food stamps have helped bring at least four million people out of poverty and kept millions more from becoming poorer than they already are. Indeed, Radel and others’ mantra of “balancing the budget” is but a pathetic and deceptive guise for what is really an agenda to further disenfranchise and fundamentally humiliate our nation’s most disadvantaged.
Radel has also voted to make drug testing a requirement for food stamp and welfare recipients. Never mind that the practice doesn’t actually work, wasting more money on the tests than it could ever hope to save on disqualified recipients. Utah, for example, spent more than $30,000 to only turn up 12 positives. Radel’s own home state of Florida only turned up 108.
And while third-degree drug possession carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and up to $250,000 in fines, Radel isn’t even going to jail—he’s going to rehab, a treatment covered by his government-provided health insurance, which offers mental health parity and, yes, covers drug rehabilitation. It’s therefore somewhat ironic that the Florida Representative had been making something of a name for himself as an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, a major component of which requires all health insurers to extend similar mental health benefits to all of their customers.
If only everyone were so lucky to be given the second chance that Radel was Sharanda Jones, for example, was recently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a first-time offense very similar to Radel’s.
But this column is not just about drugs, food stamps, or health insurance. It’s not even about Trey Radel. It’s about the need to stop thinking of the economically disenfranchised as somehow being “lesser” human beings—to stop treating the poor as second-class citizens and to start recognizing that any one of us could fall into a comparable predicament at any moment.
More than that, far too many of us think that because someone is poor, they don’t deserve to have things like a car or cell phone—which, depending on where someone lives, can be as necessary as having a roof over their heads.
This holiday season, let’s look past our preconceived notions of who someone is based on their economic standing, and instead approach them with an open mind to who they really are and more importantly who they can become.
Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy and economics. Follow her on Twitter at @golovashkina.