It’s tempting dismiss Cliven Bundy – the Nevada rancher who last week suggested that blacks were better off under slavery – as a fringe conservative unworthy of any more airtime. But his remarks provide a window into the underbelly of today’s conservative movement and are worth a closer look.
Bundy was a little known entity until earlier this month when his two-decade long refusal to pay cattle grazing fees escalated into a face off between his own armed militia and agents from the Bureau of Land Management. The episode launched him into the national spotlight and endeared him to conservatives like Senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, among others.
Bundy capitalized on his moment in the spotlight to expound on the grazing rights of his cattle, abortion, and slavery. He suggested that government subsidies have caused “negroes” to abort their “young children” and “put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” He went on: “And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
Conservatives scrambled to distance themselves from Bundy by denouncing his comments as offensive and racist. But they were rather quiet on Bundy’s characterization of the safety net as a modern form of slavery. Their silence reflects a common ideology uniting conservative politicians to the likes of Bundy, one that lays the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of poor people – particularly poor people of color – and the government programs meant to support them.
And it’s hard to argue that the GOP’s recent social policy proposals aren’t fueled by the same fire that propelled Bundy’s diatribe. Rand Paul has equated universal health care and government programs such as food stamps to slavery. Congressional candidates from North Carolina to Arizona have argued that entitlement programs are simply a way for government to assert power over the people. Paul Ryan, whose latest budget slashes spending for Medicaid and food stamps, has warned that the safety net is on the brink of becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Mike Huckabee suggested that by supporting mandated contraceptive coverage, Democrats were suggesting women needed “Uncle Sugar” to control their “libidos or reproductive system.”
These notions have motivated conservatives' strategic dismantling of the social safety net. Cuts to food stamps, with more to come should Paul Ryan have his way. Refusal to participate in Medicaid expansion, leaving more than 3 million low-income people uninsured. Rejection of the minimum wage increase. Opposition to extending federal unemployment benefits. Repudiation of equal pay measures. The imposition of funding cuts and regulations that have shuttered women’s health clinics across the country. And a government shutdown spurred by opposition to the ACA, specifically the law’s contraceptive mandate.
Who bears the greatest burden of these actions? Poor women, particularly women of color, who have long been blamed for perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Bundy and conservative politicians alike rely on historic notions of poor women being lulled to complacency by government subsidies. Those notions – in addition to being racist and classist – are simply incorrect. The majority of subsidy recipients work, but don’t make enough to support themselves or their families. As of 2011, 70 percent of low-income families and half of all poor families were working, but research suggests that nearly one-third of all working families do not make enough money to meet basic needs.
Republican cuts to government subsidies will only further erode the economic security of American families. Instead of laying blame – indeed, punishment – on poor women, we should bolster the foundation on which they stand. The Roosevelt Institute recently released a report that made the case for economic policies that would support working families: raising the minimum wage; expanding the earned income tax credit; instituting paid sick and family leave; and strengthening the right to organize; among others.
As my colleague Ellen Chesler and I recently argued, all of these recommendations are necessary but will be meaningless if women are not able to make free and fully informed decisions about their reproductive health, including planning the timing and size of their families. As such we must expand the nation’s family planning program, push for all states to expand Medicaid, and tear down the other policy barriers that prevent low-income women from accessing care.
Conservative leaders are desperate to convince the poor that social safety net programs are the chains binding them to poverty, thereby legitimizing the destruction of the very system built to lift up America’s poor families. Perhaps we should thank Bundy for using such ugly terms to shed light on the conservative substitute for the war on poverty: a war against the poor.