This week, during a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University, President Obama lambasted the media, and in particular Fox News, for creating false, destructive narratives about the poor that paint them broadly as indolent and pathological.
The president said:
“Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.”
“And, look, it’s still being propagated. I mean, I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu — they will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. [Laughter.] They’re like, I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone — [laughter] — or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative — right? — that gets worked up. And very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress — which is much more typical — who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills.”
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough took umbrage. After saying that “the arrogance of it all is staggering,” and that he was “a little embarrassed” for the president, Scarborough demanded of his befuddled panel: “What about the specific clip about Fox News calling poor people leeches, sponges and lazy? Have you ever heard that on Fox News?” One panelist responded, “No, I have not.” Then Scarborough opened the question to them all: “Has anybody ever heard that on Fox News?”
In 2004, Bill O’Reilly, arguably the face of Fox News, said: “You gotta look people in the eye and tell ‘em they’re irresponsible and lazy. And who’s gonna wanna do that? Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period. Period.”
In 2012, O’Reilly listed what he called the “true causes of poverty” including “poor education, addiction, irresponsible behavior and laziness.”
In 2014, during the week that marked the 50th anniversary of L.B.J.’s “War on Poverty,” O’Reilly again said that “true poverty” (as opposed to make-believe poverty?) “is being driven by personal behavior,” which included, according to him, “addictive behavior, laziness, apathy.”
Even though the president didn’t say that Fox News specifically used the words “sponge,” “leeches” and “lazy,” O’Reilly has indeed, repeatedly, called poor people lazy, and the subtext of his remarks is that many poor people are pathologically and undeservedly dependent on the government dole.
Now who should be embarrassed for whom?
As for the president’s mention of the “Obama phones,” in 2012, FoxNews.com reported on “a viral video of an Obama supporter touting her ‘Obama phone.’” But even they had to admit that the program — Lifeline — was not created under Obama. According to the site: “But even though some beneficiaries may credit President Obama for providing the phones, Lifeline is an extension of a program that has existed since 1985.” Who was president in 1985? Oh, that’s right, the conservatives’ golden, do-no-wrong “Gipper,” Ronald Reagan.
By the way, O’Reilly’s mythology concerning addiction must also be confronted. In February, ThinkProgress gathered data from the seven states that drug-test applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also know as welfare. The site found this:
“The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent.”
The problem with all of this is that these misconceptions have a way of seeping into the populace as a whole.
For Fox’s part, they responded by having Stuart Varney, who works for Fox News and Fox Business Network, comment. Varney said: “I think the president is spinning the failure of his own policies, and I think he is blaming us, and I think we are an honest messenger.”
Stop laughing, people! There’s more. Varney continued:
“Look at food stamps for a second. We’ve been asking why is it that after six years of so-called recovery there are still 12 million more people on food stamps today than when the president took office. Why is that? Surely, that’s the failure of the president’s policy. What about Obama phones? Why is it that we’re giving away 13 million Obama phones after six years of recovery? Why are we doing that?”
Never once did Varney address the many times that O’Reilly called poor people lazy or acknowledge that “Obama phones” might be more aptly called “Reagan phones.”
And let’s make sure that we better understand participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. According to SNAP to Health, whose founding supporters were the Aetna Foundation and the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress:
“Stigma associated with the SNAP program has led to several common misconceptions about how the program works and who receives the benefits. For instance, many Americans believe that the majority of SNAP benefits go towards people who could be working. In fact, more than half of SNAP recipients are children or the elderly. For the remaining working-age individuals, many of them are currently employed. At least forty percent of all SNAP beneficiaries live in a household with earnings. In fact, the majority of SNAP households do not receive cash welfare benefits (around 10 percent receive cash welfare), with increasing numbers of SNAP beneficiaries obtaining their primary source of income from employment.”
This information is not hard to find or relay, but that would not fit the anti-Obama narrative. In the 2012 primaries, Newt Gingrich gained quite a bit of traction referring to Obama as the “the best food stamp president in American history.” This idea, including its latent racial connotations, lives on because it confirms an us-versus-them, takers-versus-makers sensibility.
Obama was right to call out the media’s poverty narratives. There are people across the income spectrum who are lazy and addicted and want something for nothing. But it’s unfair and untenable to pretend this is the sole purview of the poor. Negative behavior doesn’t necessarily spring from a lack of money, but rather exposes a lack of character.
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