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Our Broken System - America's War on the Poor


We have a deep problem in this country, and Donald Trump is just the symptom--a particularly awful and destructive one, but a symptom none the less.

You see, for a country to elect a Donald Trump in the first place, and to allow him to serve as president for a full year, something profound must have been broken in the first place. Here are some of the ways our system has failed us:

  • Our electoral process operates like a reality t.v. program, placing a premium on show, rather than substance.

  • The Electoral College is a useless vestige of a much different time.

  • As a culture, we value wealth and celebrity over charity and community. In this culture, no publicity is bad publicity.

  • Our current version of liberal democracy does not equate to one person-one vote. Individuals with wealth and large corporations are able to exert unbalanced impact on the system, a situation that was exacerbated by the Supreme Court's equating corporate campaign donations with speech.

  • Outside the actual structures of government, politicians for the last two decades have eroded the norms that help buttress a successful democracy, such as tolerance other viewpoints, respect for our institutions, and restraint in the undue exercise of one's own power.

(This list doesn't even include the structural racism and classism upon which this country built much of its wealth and influence; I have referred to this in other posts.)

Our system has been breaking for some time, and Donald Trump simply drove a truck through that breakage.

Now, his administration, in cahoots with ten Republican state governors, is seeking to impose a work requirement on Medicaid recipients. Not only is there no evidence of any positive benefit for such a policy, but it also has no basis in logic. You don't need to make Medicaid recipients work in order to qualify for health coverage. Rather, it's the opposite; you need to be healthy in order to try and find work. Furthermore, a sizable number of Medicaid recipients are already working. So what's the point, other than to kick thousands of people off the Medicaid rolls?

And what would this policy look like in practice? How would people document that they are working? There are exceptions to this requirement (pregnant women, full-time students, medically frail individuals, and primary caretakers of children under 19 or disabled adult dependents), and presumably people would need to provide evidence justifying their exemption. What would that look like? How would a "medically frail" person prove such a status? And has anyone considered that such folks are the least likely to have the ability, time, and wherewithal to pull together documentation?

This is evidence of our broken system--the fact that politically powerful and influential people implement rhetoric and policy that blame the neediest among us. Never mind the multiple examples of government largess for corporate interests and wealthy families like the Trumps that are baked into the system. Have the demonizers considered that perhaps the problem lies there, more so than with those at the poorest end of the spectrum? Apparently not.

Our country has endured many crises and challenges. From the initial formation of government, to the Civil War, Great Depression, and the fight against fascism and later communism, we have faced these situations and largely emerged stronger. But I think we are still dealing with a rupture that started in the 1960s, and we have not yet healed this breakage. Conservatives might argue that our problems from this time stem from an increase in promiscuity and the undisciplined counterculture movement. Liberals may counter that they arose from the erosion of the Great Society and the rise of the Nixonian politics of division. All would probably connect much of the mess to our folly in Vietnam.

I tend to lean toward the liberal view, of course. Quite simplistically, here is how I see the overall picture: By 1965, our country had a strong commitment to helping the poorest Americans. We declared a "War on Poverty". (We also believed in civil rights and voting rights) Today, the politicians who hold the levers of power directly attack government as a force for good (except when it benefits them and their friends) and are fighting a war, not on poverty, but on the impoverished. As part of this war, they attack the poor and non-white with words and deeds. This is where a lot of recent news stories intersect--the above example of Medicaid work requirements, Congress' failure to reauthorize the CHIP program, and the president's hateful and racist remarks about "shithole" countries.

The Trump base's fantasy of a 1950s all-white America is never going to happen. But neither is the liberal fantasy that we can solve our problems once we get rid of Trump. We need to understand that a large portion of our governing class (mostly Republicans) is protecting Trump from the Mueller investigation and actively seeking policies aligned with his. We need to look at the systems and structures that hold us back--the Electoral College, gerrymandering, the extreme way that big money influences politics--and seek a better way. We need to support and vote for politicians who understand the need to make our system better. We need to get involved, starting locally. I am part of a local group fighting to keep DACA and to flip Congress, and today, I called my Senator asking her to support a clean Dream Act. These are tiny actions, but if we all do our part, that is the way to preserve a functioning democracy. So please do something today.

Or you could put it off. But keep in mind that, even if Trump were to leave office tomorrow, we would be left with his enablers and a system that continues to favor the powerful at the expense of fairness and good policy. Unless we figure out how to fix the breakage in our democracy, don't be surprised if we end up someday with leaders who are--gasp!--worse than what we have now.

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