‘Takers’ Versus Haters

Lack of wealth doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of virtue.

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FILE - In this March 20, 2010 file photo, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., speaks to people demonstrating against the health care bill on the U.S. Capitol steps in Washington. Kingston is coming under criticism for comments suggesting that poor students who are part of the nation's school lunch program should sweep cafeteria floors. Kingston made the comments at a meeting of Jackson County Republicans on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013.

When I was traveling in Thailand years ago, I encountered a very distressing sight: a man in tattered clothes half-lying on the street, with no legs below the knees, looking quite disoriented and deeply sad as he begged for money. I reached to find some American dollars to offer. Before I handed them to the man, someone else came along and kicked him – hard. I was appalled and befuddled. Why would anyone do such a thing to such a sorry-looking and clearly disabled and disadvantaged person? It was a religious thing, I was told by a local – the theory was that the man had behaved badly in a previous life, and his disability and poverty were how he was being punished for it in this life. Hence the derision from a stranger.

I thought about this when uber-rich Mitt Romney railed against the so-called 47 percent of Americans his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, deems "takers" – people who get some kind of government benefit like Social Security or Medicaid or food stamps. He didn't seem to count the multi-million and –billion dollar corporations that get government benefits in the form of tax abatements and loopholes, or even local government incentives to locate a plant in a certain region. Romney's contempt was for people who weren't as financially successful as he was, and the only reason he seemed to think that would happen is that the "takers" didn't have his work ethic.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Now, the idea has been extended to children. At an event in Georgia, GOP Rep. Jack Kingston went after kids who get subsidized lunches at school, saying they needed to work for food. Said the lawmaker, according to a Huffington Post report:

Why don't you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria – and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money. But think what we would gain as a society in getting people – getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

The idea that society should punish and humiliate children who are already suffering from growing up in poverty is so stunning in its cruelty, it's hard to sort out. Kingston is right, of course, in saying that such a program would end up costing more than it saved. So what is the point? To embarrass the kids, to make sure the class divisions start early, so the wealthier kids know not to associate with "the help?" It's certainly not to help the children who, apparently, are guilty of the bad judgment of choosing low-income parents.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Ask any teacher about the challenge of teaching kids with empty stomachs, and she'll provide chapter and verse about how it's virtually impossible to get hungry children to focus. And why do we assume it's the poor children who need to learn there's "no free lunch?" We just saw a 16-year-old spoiled brat, Ethan Couch, get away with committing a deadly, drunken driving rampage because the judge agreed he was so coddled by his wealthy parents, he couldn't possibly know right from wrong. You want an example of a "taker?" Couch took something – four lives. A fifth, if you count the 16-year-old he paralyzed when he was driving 70 mph in a 40 mph zone, with a blood alcohol level three times the adult limit.

Kingston's office released a statement saying it was "sad that trying to have a productive conversation about instilling a strong work ethic in the next generation of Americans so quickly devolves into the usual name calling partisan hysteria." No – what's sad is that Kingston, a decent guy not known for making such flame-thrower comments, should be pushed to the edge by the pressures of a competitive Republican Senate primary.

A solid work ethic, after all, should include a moral core.