Columns » Ernest Dumas

Punishing the poor

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It behooves nearly every generation of Arkansas political leaders to write another chapter in the enduring and simple annals of punishing the poor. Governor Hutchinson is writing the current one, with the help of his merry Republicans in the legislature.

By next year, they will have cut off medical insurance for 100,000 or more of the poorest and most desperate citizens because they won't or can't prove they are working or otherwise can't climb over the confounding bureaucratic hurdles erected by the state to hold on to their insurance.

If Attorney General Leslie Rutledge gets her way, with the help of other Republican attorneys general, President Trump and his Supreme Court appointees, another 250,000 will lose their coverage when the court voids the Affordable Care Act. Working people will lose their premium subsidies and those with preexisting conditions or whose age, sex or health profiles make them questionable risks for insurance companies will be out of luck.

Arkansas has always been better at punishing the indolent poor because we have more of them, proportionally, than almost every state and poorer public-health and education systems that produce more adults with mental, physical and emotional disorders.

Every society has had to deal with its vagabonds, and our European ancestors, like the current generation of politicians, often adopted a tough-love rationale: We're doing it to force them to make better life choices. As Governor Hutchinson says, they'll thank us later.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, when the Black Plague depopulated the continent, England passed the poor laws to force the beggars and bums to refill the labor force. Parliament passed a law putting them in stocks for three days and three nights with only bread and water and then giving them the bum's rush out of town if they had not gotten a job. When that didn't work, Henry VIII ordered regular whippings to take the place of stocks. No studies of its effectiveness in building the workforce exist.

In Arkansas, the popularity of the poor has waxed and waned. A century ago, Gov. Charles Brough got the legislature to authorize free medical care for the poor who were sick or crippled, a small subsidy for poor women with dependent kids and a school for feebleminded kids. (OK, he also unleashed federal troops on black sharecroppers in Phillips County who were already being slaughtered by vigilantes.)

At the depth of the Great Depression in 1934, Gov. J. Marion Futrell slashed state spending and refused to put up a dime of state money to match federal dollars for relief of a starving population beggared by devastating floods, drought and the Depression. On the theory that people didn't need so much education to find honest toil, he cut school spending and tried to end high schools altogether. In March 1935, the Roosevelt administration ended all federal dollars to Arkansas because, alone of the states, it refused to pay even a piddling amount for food commodities and other relief or to pay schoolteachers. Futrell feared mobs attacking the Capitol and begged the legislature to pass a sales tax, end prohibition and tax liquor to pay for the stuff Roosevelt wanted. Even then, Futrell had the state give the relief money to the big landowners, who rarely shared it with sharecroppers and tenant farmers, especially blacks.

A Futrell disciple from down the road at Jonesboro, Gov. Francis Cherry, had some of the same instincts in 1953, after he had beaten the liberal Sid McMath. Cherry promised to rid the welfare rolls of "deadheads" and sent the legislature seven bills to give him that power. Cherry said he was doing it for the deadheads' benefit — they would get a job and be happier.

One bill required everyone enrolled in "welfare" programs for the elderly, disabled and dependent children to give the state a lien on their real property and give up any savings as a condition of continuing their benefits. That bill was too much even for the legislature, but Cherry did manage to lop 2,300 deadheads from the rolls before the 1954 election. Young Orval Faubus, who would beat him, accused Cherry of making a poor widow give up the $200 she had put aside for her funeral.

Cherry's penury would be piddling today, when the health care of 350,000 poor Arkansans is at risk. Hutchinson's work requirement and other administrative waivers he has sought to end coverage under the Affordable Care Act run counter to the law, which says waivers can be made only to increase coverage and to improve health deliveries. The governor says all his reforms are intended to provoke people into getting a job, increasing their happiness and prospects for getting health insurance on their own. So, why didn't it work before they got insurance?

The actual results of ending medical coverage for so many people, in addition to the private suffering, will be the loss of billions of dollars of federal stimulus to the economy and, for the state government, the loss of millions of dollars in premium, income and sales tax receipts. But who is counting?

There is no evidence that punitive "welfare reforms" have ever worked except to end welfare payments. Cherry was a man of immaculate probity but a stumbling politician. Hutchinson certainly and Rutledge maybe will show the old man's wraith how popular parsimony can be.

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