We need to show consideration for the poor

The poor get no respect in this country. As someone who experienced abject poverty in America’s barrios, I know a thing or two about being disrespected due to my family’s reliance on government aid for a temporary period.

When I was growing up, we received welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and public housing. Although my Mexican immigrant parents never committed any crimes, I felt a deep sense of shame, thanks to the slurs of many elected officials, public figures and media outlets.

Recently, Republicans have taken a leadership role in bashing the poor. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney said that he doesn’t care too much for them. Newt Gingrich, another presidential aspirant, wants to do away with child labor laws, since inner-city kids “ought to learn how to go to work.”

Gingrich also has referred to President Obama, on more than one occasion, as the “food stamp president.” Democratic leaders have failed to respond sufficiently by defending food stamps and other important safety net programs for those in need — especially during the terrible economic times we’ve been in.

It’s no secret why the poor receive little attention from both Republicans and Democrats during election seasons. Poor people lack the financial resources to make political contributions to political candidates and, now, the all-powerful Super PACs.

Disrespecting the poor is not new in America. Prior to the Great Depression, many politicians and national leaders also treated the poor with disdain. In the early 1900s, the powerful and rich commonly used words like “lazy” and “freeloaders” to describe the poor, placing the full burden of their bleak plight solely on their shoulders.

It wasn’t until the market crashed in 1929 and the middle class and some members of the upper class directly suffered when many Americans came to the harsh realization that structural factors affect individual behavior and outcomes. If there’s a silver lining in this country’s economic calamities, it is that many Americans understand that financial markets periodically create uncertainty for the majority, while a privileged minority remains insulated.

Republican presidential candidates can rail all they want against food stamps, but for millions of Americans who, at no fault of their own, have had to rely on them to feed themselves and their families, the simple reality is this: The private sector left them stranded; only government assistance has kept them fed.

Making food stamps a campaign issue is a loser for Republicans. Too many Americans now recognize how vital the program is.

Alvaro Huerta, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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