The Elizabethan origins of Republican attacks on Medicaid, a conversation with longtime welfare rights organizer Cheri Honkala, and why Rand Paul doesn’t deserve to be called a deficit hawk for shutting down the government. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
The so-called “able-bodied” are now everywhere among government antipoverty programs, Republican officials claim. But, as Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz write in the New York Times Upshot, this term has long been a political as well as a moral one, dating back centuries to the 1601 Elizabethan poor law, as a proxy for separating the “deserving” from the “undeserving.” To unpack the 400-year history of the term “able-bodied,” Rebecca talks with Emily Badger.
Next, on the same day that President Trump releases a budget that is expected to — yet again — slash nearly every program that helps workers and families make ends meet, to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, fast-food workers will be staging a massive walk-out in Memphis, calling for higher wages and union rights. Protesters will be marching along the same route as the sanitation workers’ strike that, 50 years ago, brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated. Rebecca speaks with Cheri Honkala, an organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, one of the groups behind the march, about her long history of civil disobedience to fight poverty — and her early years as one of the founders of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union back in the early 1990s.
But first, Jeremy Slevin, aka The Slevinator, returns with some choice words for Sen. Rand Paul’s government shutdown.
This week’s guests:
- Emily Badger, The Upshot/New York Times
- Cheri Honkala, Organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human rights Campaign
For more on this week’s topics:
- Read Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz’s “Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway?” — a 400-year history of how we talk about the deserving vs. the undeserving poor.
- Get involved with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign at www.economichumanrights.org
Transcript of show:
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): This is Off Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality and everything they intersect with powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. This week on Off Kilter I talk with Emily Badger of the New York Times Upshot who along with her collague Margot Sanger-Katz recently complied a 400 year history of a phrase that’s long been at the center of debates around anti-poverty programs. That phrase is “Able-bodied”. Next, ahead of next Monday’s fast food walkout in Memphis calling for higher wages and union rights, I talk with Cheri Honkala, an organizer with deep roots in the welfare rights movement who now works with the Poor People’s economic human rights campaign, which is organizing that walk out as part of a march following the same path as Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee.
But first, Jeremy Slevin, you look like you must have stayed up until at leat 4 AM this morning.
JEREMY SLEVIN: Well, I went to bed at 10 PM so maybe that’s just my face.
VALLAS: Maybe you need a better skincare regimen is what I’m saying but I was thinking maybe you stayed up until 4 AM because a lot of other people did because Senator Rand Paul was not quite reading “Green Eggs and Ham” on the senate floor but he was indeed making a big show of how much he didn’t like the budget deal that got cut very, very, very early Friday morning and a lot of press are now calling him some kind of big deficit hawk and praising him standing up on principle. Do you think that’s a fair description even though you didn’t watch last night apparently?
SLEVIN: OK, addendum, I did watch a little bit of Rand Paul but that started at like 5 PM. But I wasn’t up until 4 AM. So Rand Paul, as you said, basically shut down the government singlehandedly for a couple hours last night and early Friday morning because he wanted so-called fiscal discipline. He said how come Republicans were against Obama’s deficit and now are for Republican deficits? Rand Paul is also the same guy who not two months ago voted for a tax bill that cost $1.5 trillion dollars. If anyone is as responsible for the deficits as the rest of the GOP, it is Rand Paul. Like, and he’s calling out their hypocrisy and meanwhile it’s one of the biggest hypocrites in the world right now.
VALLAS: Jeremy Slevin’s head looks like it’s about to explode but justifiably so. But here’s the thing, right, I agree with everything you just said. If Rand Paul wanted to be the guy to stand on principle, maybe the time was two months ago when Republicans were ramming through a massive deficit increasing set of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. He obviously is complicit because he voted for that bill which is now law. But there’s part of what he said that’s actually kind of true that I think we have to dig into, which is about —
SLEVIN: He’s part of the problem.
VALLAS: Well he doesn’t get credit for being special.
VALLAS: But he has correctly identified the hypocrisy that is now at the heart of the Republican party’s feelings about deficits.
VALLAS: Which is that they hate them when it’s convenient for them like when they’re talking about say, making sure that kids have health insurance or that families have enough food to eat or that we have Social Security for people in retirement and in times of disability. But they love them and they’re totally fine with them when it comes to giving massive tax cuts to their donor class.
SLEVIN: Yeah, it’s like my friend who’s a pretend vegetarian and always give people crap for eating meat and then he’ll order a steak and you’re like what are you doing, and it’s like yeah maybe we should eat less meat but you are the dude ordering a steak!
VALLAS: Is that friend you?
VALLAS: I have it on pretty, pretty good authority that you are vegan at home but not quite in public.
SLEVIN: Vegetarian in the streets. Exactly, no steak but fish. I am less sympathetic to Rand Paul. I give him no credit.
VALLAS: I feel like you just totally melted down because I realize that was you and called you out.
SLEVIN: But the second part that is so frustrating about Rand Paul is the supposed principle he’s standing up for is moral bankrupt. He is basically saying I’m ok with these tax cuts, but I am opposed to adding any funding to combat their opioid crisis, I’m opposed to funding Medicaid, I’m opposed to making sure kids can have Headstart. The whole premise that the government can’t afford these things is totally flawed. So that’s what’s doubly frustrating. It would be one thing if he was right on principle and wasn’t upholding his principles. He’s wrong on principle and can’t even live up to those crappy principles.
VALLAS: Now this is not the only time —
SLEVIN: Trying not to curse. [LAUGHTER] Just keep saying crappy.
VALLAS: It is a family show, Jeremy, as I’m often —
SLEVIN: Very, very family oriented.
VALLAS: As I’m often reminded by some of my listeners when I cross that line. You know who you are. So, this is not going to be the last time we’re talking about budgets and also hypocrisy because next week coming on Monday President Trump is going to be releasing his next budget blueprint which of course lays out his priorities and the Republican Party’s priorities for the country and shows us where they want to spend money, where they want to cut. And that’s going to be another thing to watch here when it comes to massive hypocrisy. And why is that, Jeremy?
SLEVIN: A lot of the press, the reports ahead of the budget release are saying oh, this isn’t important anymore because they just struck this budget deal which I think is really worrisome. Because Paul Ryan has been telling everyone who will listen and even those who won’t listen that he wants to make giant cuts to programs that help people get ahead this year. He wants to cut Medicaid, he’s saying he wants entitlement reform, the whole Republican retreat was spent with him basically selling Republicans on this plan and the Trump administration, Trump has been saying the same thing. We need to get people from welfare to work and this budget is the test, the first test of whether they’re actually going to do that. And if the last year’s budget was any indication, they’re going to make gigantic cuts to Medicaid in this budget. They’re going to propose these cuts and that’s going to be the opening bid to slash these programs. So I think it would be a mistake just because it’s not going to set out the funding levels for different committees this year to assume that the policies contained in the budget are irrelevant.
VALLAS: Especially because this is a different year, 2018 in a lot of ways is a very different year than 2017 was. We’re not expecting to see reconciliation bills, the same tool they used to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to give their millionaire friends huge tax cuts. We’re not expecting to see a reconciliation bill moving through congress in a way that gives everyone a clear point to look at of here’s what the Republican agenda is. We’re instead watching for example, President Trump try to dismantle Medicaid by fiat over the objections of the American people which were voiced all of last year saying hands off my Medicaid, hands off my Affordable Care Act. He has decided to take matters into his own hands, we’ve seen that not just through his new policy of allowing the states to take away health insurance from people who can’t find work as we’ve talked about extensively on this show and as I’ll talk about more later in this episode with Emily Badger from [The New York Times] but also now his announcement that he is considering lifetime limits on Medicaid coverage. Perhaps the most evil and heartless and cruel policy you could even conceive of if you’re a person with power, to do that. Now whether he has power to do that I think is an open question and I think there will almost certainly be legal challenges that I would say if I had to look into my lawyerly crystal ball will end up being successful. I don’t think he has the authority to do this by fiat. But it is certainly the direction he’s trying to take the country and he’s right there with Paul Ryan.
SLEVIN: Yeah, that’s exactly right and again, this budget will be the legislative icing or the legislative cake to the basically –
VALLAS: What’s the metaphor here?
SLEVIN: So they’re doing all these things through the executive branch. The lifetime limits, the so-called work requirements that take away your Medicaid if you can’t find a job or you’re in school and now they’re going to go one step further and put forward basically a legislative proposal we expect to cut Medicaid. So, the two go in tandem.
VALLAS: And they give us a roadmap for what Trump and Paul Ryan are certainly trying to do this year. And we’re going to need to leave it there but as we’re going to talk about a lot more next week, we know that this is the opposite of the American people want, we know that from actually new polling that the Center for American Progress commissioned finding that 80% of Americans say no to cuts to Medicaid. 78% of Americans say no to cuts to Social Security Disability and it goes on and on, this is the opposite of what Americans want and if Trump and Ryan move forward with this kind of an agenda in an election year I think the chickens are going to come home to roost in November. We’ve got to leave it there, Jeremy it’s been real today.
SLEVIN: It’s been real.
VALLAS: It’s been real.
SLEVIN: It’s been real real.
VALLAS: You didn’t even wear an interesting outfit but that’s OK, that’s OK, our listeners will have to wait until next week.
SLEVIN: Is that a pink scarf over there?
VALLAS: And that’s all the time we have. [LAUGHTER] Don’t go away, next up, I talk with Emily Badger about the 400 year history of the term “Able-bodied”. Stay tuned, more Off Kilter right after this.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. The so-called “able-bodied” are now everywhere among government programs for the poor, Republican officials point out. But as Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz write in The New York Times upshot, “There is no standard for physical or mental ability that makes a person quote, unquote “able”. Rather,” they write, “The term has long been a political one. Across centuries of use it has consistently implied another negative; that the able-bodied could work but are not working or working hard enough and as such, they don’t deserve our aid.” To unpack the 400 year history of the term able-bodied, I’m joined by Emily Badger who writes about housing, transportation, inequality and more for the New York Times upshot. Emily, thanks so much for joining the show.
EMILY BADGER: Hi Rebecca. Thanks for having me back.
VALLAS: Well Emily, I have to admit I nerded out hard reading this piece because a 400 year history of the term that is perhaps more centrally housed in every debate around the deserving versus the undeserving poor, something we’re very much living through in this political moment, just how very cool that you did this. Help tell that story, where does it go back to 400 years ago?
BADGER: Sure, so I have to admit, I did not know this history myself as of a couple weeks ago, even being someone who writes about poverty and government programs designed to help the poor on a regular basis. But the genesis for this piece is that my colleague Margot who covers health care policy in particular, she and I realized in conversation with each other that we had this mutual suspicion of this term “able-bodied” that people constantly use in conversation with us in Washington and in policy circles and the think tank world. Where we both felt like we shouldn’t use this term ourselves as journalists, at least no without quotation marks around it because we both sort of sensed that it’s loaded, it carries a lot of connotations that people don’t explicitly express and in Washington is quite common that we fight about politics through rhetoric. There’s certain terms we know as journalists that we ought to be really careful with, for instance we don’t use terms like “anti-abortion” or “pro-abortion” because those are political terms in nature. So Margot and I thought that this term feels very political to us. We’re suspicious of it. What is the story behind it? Where did it come from? How have we come to use it? What do people really mean when they use it?
And we started reaching out to historians in particular, other people who are particularly familiar with the backstory of the Medicaid program and over and over again people kept telling us, you need to learn about English poor law dating to 1601 which is not something either Margot or I knew very much about. But in fact it turns out that this set of laws that date back 400 years to England which are really the foundation of how we have built social policy in the United States as well, literally they include the phrase “able-bodied”, they include from the very, very beginning this distinction between the impotent poor, meaning sort of people who are powerless to help themselves and able-bodied poor. And the idea that we should provide resources and aid to the impotent poor but we shouldn’t freely give stuff away to the able-bodied. Maybe what we should do is set them up at workhouses, try to connect them to work opportunities. But very, very early on there was this distinction between people who we thought should be work, people who couldn’t work for a reason.
VALLAS: So the first distinction between the deserving and the undeserving.
BADGER: Yes, exactly and the idea that some people are worthy and some people are not get expressed in a lot of different ways. We talk about people who are lazy versus people who are industrious or people who are able-bodied or people who are crippled or disabled or something like that. Whatever language we use always this idea that one group unquestionably should be given help by us without judgment and the other group is probably trying to freeload off of the public’s willingness to help. And when you think about it that way, as one historian pointed out to me part of the reason why we have these really expensive government bureaucracies in the United States around anti-poverty programs, we construct these elaborate bureaucracies to try to separate these two groups of people from each other and then it costs a lot of money in order to operate those bureaucracies. When we require people to qualify or submit new paperwork every year or multiple times a year to prove that you know, in fact, there is, they still qualify for these programs or when we’re talking about work requirements we require people to show that you’re in a job training program or that you’re actually working for work even if you don’t have work. All of that is part of this expensive process of trying to identify who is deserving and who is not.
VALLAS: And one of the points that your piece makes out is that it’s not just an inherently political term but it’s also a heavily moral term and that that’s a large part of why we actually see politicians and elected officials using it.
BADGER: Yeah, one of the historians who I talked to about this put it really perfectly to me when he said that the reason we make this physical distinction between people who are able in their bodies and people who are not is because the physical distinction always implies a moral distinction. And even though this dates back to Elizabethan England this idea is very American too I think, this idea that work is moral, if you are a good person you are working hard, if you are not working hard that’s a result of some kind of moral failing on your part. That’s a very old puritanical idea but obviously it’s one that carries through to debates that we’re having in 2018 about programs like Medicaid.
VALLAS: Continuing to tell that history going all the way back to 1601, you also take a look at who it was that was charged with making these distinctions back in the day. Today we’re familiar with the vast and expensive government bureaucracies you were describing and I do want to dig deeper into that because of how timely and current that conversation is right now but how did it work back in the 17th century?
BADGER: So the 1601 poor law in England codified what a lot of communities were already doing which is that it said we’re going to collect taxes from people and then use that money to redistribute it to support and help the poor. But the 1601 law didn’t set up some central English bureaucracy that ran this akin to a federal program in the U.S. today. What it ready did was it placed the onus on people in individual communities like parish wardens and overseers of the poor to be responsible for collecting and redistributing that money. So in practice what we mean is there are people actually living in the community who knew for instance that David over here has tuberculosis and he can’t support his family and he’s got 8 children and they’re all really dependent on him and obviously the mother can’t work because she’s also trying to take care of the children. It’s quite clear to the parish warden that David and his family are worthy. So there’s this notion that in trying to distinguish between these two groups of people, those decisions are being made by people who are embedded in the community who know their neighbors who are familiar with here’s this other guy who, he just panhandles out on the corner and everyone knows he’s perfectly healthy and he’s just lazy and unwilling to work.
The idea that these really subjective distinctions about who we should be giving aid to and who we shouldn’t, they could be made by people in the community because they know everyone in the community. And obviously translating this idea over the years, we’ve erected these larger and more centralized government programs. Someone who is sitting in a Medicaid office in Kentucky doesn’t personally know you and your story to be able to say if they think you are clearly worthy or not. So these same distinctions that have to be made between we want to give aid to and people we aren’t willing to give aid to have to be made through these other very complex processes. Have you received a doctor’s note that you can show us that explains why you aren’t capable of meeting a work requirement that we’ve imposed on you or some various other qualification criteria. Essentially what these bureaucracies are trying to do is the same that the parish warden was trying to do 400 years ago which is identify who really needs help versus who is really being lazy and sticking their hand out anyway. But it of course, makes the process of distinguishing and sorting through these people even more ridiculous when we think about having a bureaucracy do that.
VALLAS: Now I have to confess that almost everything I read in your piece was new to me. I really didn’t know the history here, I was fascinated to see that apparently at some point later than the 1601 Elizabethan poor law the English came to recognize not just the able bodied versus those who were not able-bodied but a third group of people, the able-bodied who were blocked from work for reasons that weren’t about their bodies.
BADGER: Yeah, I think that this follow pretty closely, once you start separating the poor into two groups of people and you start trying to live out those distinctions in practice, it will fairly quickly become clear to people who are executing these programs that wait a minute, there are people out there who appear to be physical capable of work but they’re not working and it doesn’t seem like they’re lazy, there must be other things that are preventing them from working, oh maybe there are structural obstacles also. Maybe the economy is really bad, there aren’t enough job in our local community. Maybe this person isn’t very mobile and so they can’t travel far enough away to where the jobs exist. If you deploy any thoughtfulness about this I think that you have to recognize that there are plenty of people who don’t work for reasons that don’t have to do with their body. This is the idea that there are barriers to employment for people that are outside of your body, they’re in the community, they’re in the structure of the economy, maybe they’re embedded in things like discrimination in the labor market. And this process of setting everyone who is poor into one of these two categories becomes murkier once you really start trying to make these distinctions in practice and you realize that the world is more complicated than that.
So the English start creating these workhouses where they say OK, some people need assistance, they’re able-bodied but they’re not working, maybe what we should be doing is creating work opportunities for them. And creating this third category of people doesn’t solve the problem. I think it just further muddies how we think about supporting the poor. But what was so striking to us about learning about this history is that all of these things that people were debating and even the language they were using to debate it, 300, 400 years ago are so identical to how we talk about the poor today. Not only are we still talking about the able-bodied and the deserving but we’re still having arguments today about people who are quote “able-bodied” why aren’t they working? Is it their own fault or is it because there are structural obstacles? And today just as was the case 300 years ago, I think we often have a really hard time distinguishing between personal failings and structure obstacles. Even when there are structural obstacles I think people still wind up frequently conflating that with some kind of moral deficiency on the part of people, which is really fundamentally unfair, I think.
VALLAS: One of the things that people will be very familiar with in terms of the kinds of bureaucratic hurdles and tape that have been set up over the years, the more recent years to make it harder for struggling folks to access basic assistance is drug tests. Something that many states have tried and that has been shown time and again to be extremely expensive and not all that effective given that very, very, very few people who end up actually taking the drug test are found to be positive and therefore here we are drug testing all these people under the assumption that we got all of these so-called able bodied folks who are trying to access assistance and are undeserving. I was fascinated to learn that current day, modern day drug tests actually have origins in the 18th century.
BADGER: Yeah, this is one of the particular moments in reporting this where everything came together for me and I realized how much we are having the same conversation today that was happening, 300, 400 years ago. One of the historians who I spoke with, her name is Susannah Ottoway was telling me that, so back in Elizabethan England when we have these local people in the community who are trying to decide who is worthy, who is not, who should we give help to, because they realized this is a very difficult distinction to make, they started to set up these rules. Things like, if anyone in the community has seen you getting drunk in the local alehouse we know that you are not worthy. And the idea -
VALLAS: I have to use your quote from that piece though.
BADGER: Oh yes.
VALLAS: Because it’s such great language, such like classic old English language. Quote, here was the rule, “nobody who tipples in the alehouse will get poor relief.” That was the 18th century drug test, right?
BADGER: Right yeah, exactly and the point that Susannah the historian made to me was if you can’t figure how to distinguish who is worthy from who is not then you set up rules that effectively force the poor to reveal themselves as being worthy or not. So you set up this rule about people who are drunk or today we would set up a rule about drug testing which is basically a hoop that we make the poor go through in order to reveal themselves as being someone who we ought give assistance to. And when Susannah said that to me I immediately thought this is so similar to what you often hear in Washington today where people, when we talk about creating more onerous eligibility criteria and hoops that people have to jump through you hear people say, if they really need it they’ll be willing to go through all of these hoops. If you really need aid, you’re going to be willing to come in to the local bureaucratic office and fill out new paperwork every month or you’re going to be more than happy to take this job training program and as a condition of receiving aid because if you really need it you will do anything to get it. And that’s this exact same idea that you could reveal yourself to be someone who desperately wants this by your willingness to overcome all the obstacles we’re putting between you and the aid.
And that’s a way that we justify making it a pain in the butt to sign up for these programs. And of course it ignores the fact that people may have a difficult time meeting all of those requirements for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their willingness or their desire. Maybe you don’t have a car and it’s not practical for you to get to this meeting every month, maybe your housing situation is really unstable and you don’t receive bureaucratic mailings that are sent to you twice a year reminding you to sign up for things. Or for instance, we looked pretty closely at the requirements that Kentucky is proposing to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients there. They’re talking about things like requiring people to pay at least $1 a month in premiums on healthcare which sounds like yeah of course that’s not really a lot of money but making people go through those hoops just to say that they’re contributing something is really just imposing another requirement on them in the hopes that it will deter a lot of people in the first place.
VALLAS: Now the Medicaid program itself is actually in many ways a historical tracker of the evolution of this kind of thinking and how it underlies policy making and that’s part of what you explore in this piece. Medicaid began in 1965, a little more present day but still a while ago, with as you put it Elizabethan notions in tact but over time has evolved to something that looks very different that’s not about trying to decide who is deserving versus undeserving, setting aside current debates which we’ll come back to in a minute. Tell a little bit of that story of the evolution of Medicaid.
BADGER: So the Medicaid program originally recognized these very familiar classes of people who deserving poor. If you are a pregnant woman, if you are blind, if you are physically disabled, these are classic categories that everyone has agreed going back a long time, these are people who are worthy of help. And over time the Medicaid program has extended help to people beyond those core groups that would be familiar even in Elizabethan times. It’s extended to women who had certain kinds of cervical or breast cancer, it was extended to more parents, it basically became more expansive and more generous over time. And that kind of culminates in the Affordable Care Act when we’re finally saying it doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, if you have dependents, if you have some kind of physical condition that prevents you from working, whatever you are, if you make below a certain income, you qualify. We’re going to get rid of all of these other distinctions about who qualifies and who doesn’t and set an income cut off.
That’s what the Affordable Care Act tried to do with the Medicaid expansion which ultimately a lot of states declined to participate in but that decision that that policy baked into the Affordable Care Act was the culmination of this several decade history of expanding the definition of who is worthy to the point where we said we’re not even going to talk about who is worthy and who is not we’re just going to look at your income. Are you truly poor? And that story, that evolution depending on your point of view sort of marks a kind of progress from this history that we’ve been talking about but what’s so notable about these new work requirements that are coming through Medicaid waivers from the Trump administration is that we’re now moving backwards. We’re rolling back that long-term story of expanding to more and more people. Now we’re saying wait a minute, maybe we expanded to too many people and I think the term able-bodied has particular come into fashion in the last five years or so because it has been used specifically to refer to the Medicaid expansion population.
But conservatives in particular who are concerned about all of the quote able-bodied are saying wait a minute let’s scale it back, let’s go back to trying to make some distinctions between who is able-bodied and who is not. But of course as we were talking about before once you decide to start doing that then you realize that making these distinction is very complicated because oh what if you’re able bodied but you have had an opioid addiction problem, it’s not politically tenable for us to say that people who are suffering from substance abuse, particularly in this time when we’re talking about the opioid epidemic that they should have to go to work in that condition or it’s not tenable for us to say that you have to get a job or do some job training program if you live in a community where the economy is really in the tank, where there are no job opportunities. One of the things that was so interesting to us about this is once you start saying that you want to make these distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving, then you realize wait no we have to carve out an exception for these people and for these people and for these people and that exercise of carving out all these exceptions sort of reveals the underlying folly of trying to make these distinctions in the first place.
VALLAS: And then of course in a lot of ways, I’m struck reflecting on the conversation and the whole story that your piece tells over those 400 years, in a lot of ways able-bodied really deserves to sent back to 1601 where it came from given that in this moment and that’s a lot of what you were just describing but I’ll add to it, it’s not, opioid addiction is a great example and substance misuse and just the very concept of able-bodied sets up a binary that’s all about physical ability and has no contemplation of mental impairments, mental health disabilities, anything else before you even get to structural barriers to work that might be going on with a human being.
BADGER: Right in addition to being anachronistic in many ways, it really grows out of this time when just about anyone who was working was doing some kind of physical work. And that’s just not the case today. In addition to being politically loaded and morally freighted it’s also just a weird term for our era in the 21st century when the labor market is not able physical labor. It is not able the abilities of your body for many people. So, in that way it feels very strange term to use today as well.
VALLAS: So given this history lesson that you’ve really heroically done and I want to thank also your colleague Margot Sanger-Katz, what’s your takeaway in terms of what people who are hearing this and people who are reading your piece should be thinking in this moment where we’re having yet another incredibly serious and very high stakes and very public debate that doesn’t just have to do with Medicaid but as news has broken over the course of the past several day is also going to include housing assistance and also food assistance and potentially almost every type of assistance that people might need to turn to when they fall on hard times/
BADGER: I don’t think, and Margot feels the same way I think, we’re not expecting this term to go away. And I think that a certain group of politicians in particular with continue to use it because it’s a valuable term. Because it allows them to talk about the poor in a way that conveys this very sort of particular idea that we are giving out hard earned taxpayer dollars to people who are freeloading, we need to find a way to stop doing that. It’s a productive term for advancing a particular point of view and for that reason I think people will continue to use it. But the main thing that Margot and I really wanted to get across in writing about this is this term is used so often and admittedly it’s used in news stories by the media that it has come to feel like an actual demographic term, like neutral language to describe certain people who would be recipients of government programs. And what we wanted to do and what we hoped would come out of this is to make more people think about the fact that this is not a neutral term.
This is not a clearly define demographic label the same way adults with dependent children is. And I think that the ultimate success of any kind of political rhetoric is that you hope that it becomes adopted as the norm for how we talk about something and I think that that has been happening with this term. The fact that many people are unaware of this history don’t necessary think about the connotations that come attached to it are a testament to the fact that it has become embedded in how lots of people talk about the poor. And so we just wanted people to, when you hear this phrase, stop and think wait a minute, who are really talking about here? And what are we really trying to communicate about them because for the most part I should add the caveat that in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamps program, there is actually a statutory category of people called able-bodied without dependents —
VALLAS: So called “ab-bods” right, which actually doesn’t even sound like it’s describing humans, it sounds almost robotic.
BADGER: Yes, yes, it sounds like some kind of poor cyborg of something like that. But other than that we really could find no other examples of where there was a clearly defined technical meaning of the term. And so really we just want to point out that this is not neutral language. It doesn’t have a technical definition. It’s being used in a slippery way to imply lots of unspoken things. And so just stop and take pause when you hear it, I think Margot and I are sort of secretly hoping that other journalists will realize that they should not just repeat this language when it comes out of politician’s mouths. I would stick it in quotes if I had to use it in a story. But I think that’s what we’re hoping would come out of this but of course it’s always going to be the case that we’re going to fight about our politics through rhetoric in Washington. That’s not going to change but at the very least let’s all be honest about what’s happening with this term.
VALLAS: Here, here, and obviously part of the same larger conversation around language that implicates word like “welfare” which also have deep histories and are not neutral terms at all but are political and moral terms and in some cases such as with welfare, racist dog whistles. I’m speaking with Emily Badger, she writes about housing, transportation, inequality, cities, lots of things for the New York Times Upshot. Emily, thank you so much for this great piece, for this history lesson. We’ll be linking to this on the syllabus on our show page so everyone can read it and thanks so much for coming back on the show.
BADGER: Yeah. Thanks again this is a great conversation.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. On Monday February 12th President Trump will be releasing a budget that is expected to again slash nearly every program that helps workers and families make ends meet. Of course, to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and while doing nothing to raise wages, you get the point. February 12th happens to also be the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis Tennessee where he was assassinated. And while Trump is releasing one of the most anti-worker budgets in history, fast food workers will be staging a massive walk out in Memphis calling for higher wages and union rights. Protesters will be marching along the same route the sanitation workers took 50 years ago from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall. Helping to organize the march is Cheri Honkala, an organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign who has deep roots in this sort of civil disobedience as one of the founders of the Kensington Welfare Rights unions back in the early 1990s in Philadelphia. I spoke with Cheri by phone. Let’s take a listen.
Cheri thank you so much for joining the show.
CHERI HONKALA: I’m happy to be here this morning.
VALLAS: So we’re in a moment where it seems almost everyday and in some cases more than once in the same day, news breaks that the Trump administration and Republicans in congress are looking for ways to dismantle what’s left of our incredibly meager safety net. It’s almost amazing that they’re still finding new ways to go after programs and people who already have, are scraping by just to survive. But none of this is new. And you have been fighting attempts over the years to cut programs while also working aggressively to try to move us to a place of an economic human rights frame. Take us back to the beginning, what put you in a place and what motivated you and really tell us a story of the founding of the Kensington Welfare rights union?
HONKALA: Sounds great. 30 some years ago I found myself homeless with my nine-year-old son who is now actor Mark Webber. And we couldn’t get into any shelters, I heard about this phenomenon of people taking over abandoned government properties because we learned that they had the heat on in the wintertime and that people were like freezing living outside. And so that didn’t make any sense to me and I began to get different women together in Kensington and we formed an organization the Kensington welfare rights union and we were very desperate for finding models of organizing that, to try to figure out how do we do the work we needed to do without any kind of money because there wasn’t any money whatsoever for doing any kind of organizing work. And if there was money that was available you had to be a part of a particular political alignment and most of my life I’ve just been very independent of different political alignments. So we settled in a basement in Kensington and began to do food distribution and teach people how to take over and borrow federally owned government properties to let families stay there so the city of Philadelphia could help them figure out where to live. But all of this organizing work in the Kensington welfare rights union took us to look internationally. So we looked at the organizing that was happening in Africa where large numbers of people had one or two parents dying from AIDS and had absolutely no resources and were organizing thousands and thousands of people. It also took us to the KRRS, the farmer workers movement in India and the MSP in Brazil so we learned a lot about how do you organize when you have nothing, large groups of people. And that really blossomed from the Kensington welfare rights union, it really led us to explore different forms of organization, other parts of this country so we launched a bus tour and we went around the country and we looked at other forms of organization, people living in housing projects, people living in trailer parts, tenants that nobody knew about.
So instead of doing the regular solidarity form of organizing where you just look up different organization that are in existence we just sought out to find groups of poor people living together, working together and fighting together. And had a meeting, told the leaders from those different groupings of folks together at the Highlander Center and formed the Poor People’s Economic Human rights Campaign. So we’ve remained on some international seats of the world’s Social Forum and we’re also responsible for bringing the U.S. Social Forum and we continue to hold a seat on that international body and then everyday like you said things are getting worse. Things are getting harder. The organization continues to grow and get larger and there’s less and less resources.
VALLAS: Now one of the things that are particularly important I feel to note in the context of talking especially about affordable housing programs is just how incredibly and just to remind people how incredibly inadequate what we have in place currently really is. A situation where fewer than 1 in 4 eligible poor families actually receives housing assistance, that is how inadequate these programs are and that is not a new development. That was actually very much what was going on at the time when you were founding the Kensington Welfare Right’s Union. Housing was really at the heart of a lot of what you were pointing to and making sure that people were seeing. Tell a little bit of that story about how housing fit into some of the actions that the Kensington Welfare Rights Union was part of and was leading in the early 90s.
HONKALA: Yeah, well I mean it began in the early 90s but still continues to this day. People just don’t hear about it now. But you know, we started organizing sit-ins at the Department of Human Services and Child Protection because many low income and impoverished welfare recipients were watching the fast-tracking of their children from foster care into adoption solely because they didn’t have access to adequate affordable housing. And it really continues to today. So literally social workers that work for the Department of Human Services would call me up and say Cheri, I have this family that I don’t want to take the kids from the mother so can you meet me in a park and help this family get connected to the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and now the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights campaign so I don’t have to take these kids and separate them from their mom because many people don’t know that many of the efforts during the 60s to ensure that children were not taken solely because they didn’t have access to housing in the 60s is very much alive and well today because long waiting lists and people not having access to housing. Women are supposed to be on the priority list for reunification and now they’re not and in Philadelphia as it is in many other parts of the country. They’ve combined their emergency housing programs with the Department of Human Services, Child Protection and to low income women that’s scarier than [INAUDIBLE] police department. So there is and there has been a huge crisis everyday in Philadelphia people go and play the lottery for housing just like any other place in this country many people that are in need of housing because they’re victims of domestic violence are put into regular shelters which are thereby putting the rest of women and children in those shelters in danger because battered women’s shelters have always been full to capacity. I just took in a young woman two days ago who had two black eyes and two children and cuts on her face and we had to create a big stink here in Philadelphia in order to get this woman into a battered women’s shelter but every single day after 5 o’clock because the city doesn’t want to show that they’re sending away pregnant women, people in wheelchairs, people that are victims of domestic violence at the end of the day they give everybody tokens and they have them sign on a piece of paper that they won’t hold the city of Philadelphia responsible and in exchange they’re able to use their free phone to try to figure out some place to sleep for the night and if they’re lucky their name is called and they are able to perhaps secure a mattress on a floor someplace.
VALLAS: And unaffordable housing and the massively inadequate housing assistance structure and shelter structure that we have in this country was very much at the heart of your origin as an activist and really as a leading voice in the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Poor People’s economic human rights campaign when you actually were just first starting out if I know the story correctly, you were living in your car with your young son and then became homeless even more homeless than you had been living out of your car when your car was demolished by a drunk driver and you weren’t able to find a shelter which drove you to actually call a press conference to say this is quote, this is me, this is my nine-year-old son and we’re not leaving until someone can tell us where we can live and not freeze to death.
HONKALA: That’s correct and then I began the process of going to jail from times upwards of 3 times a day and I like many other low-income families across this country, I had actually my mother was a victim of domestic violence and I was taken from my mother and raised in nine different institutions and she had never worked outside the household and so I was determined to make sure that that didn’t happen to me and to my son so we began the struggle to try and educate the policymakers and the general public that this isn’t about low-income mothers that don’t have work ethics that don’t love their children. That this country has done, the government has done a great job at villanizing and perpetuating stereotypes of low income people and I wanted somebody to explain to me what I could do with the amount of money that I had and no access to affordable housing.
We also out of necessity began to be known across the country because we pioneered the setting up of homeless encampments and we’ve continued them to this date when we get anywhere from 40 to 70 homeless people, we feel like it’s safer for them to all live together in one area as opposed to somebody sleep over here in their car, another person sleep over there underneath a bridge but to use their collective power so we’ve set up many different tent cities in different parts of the country and one of the first ones that we set up on [INAUDIBLE] LeHigh actually made it into the New York Times.
VALLAS: One of the things that underpins a lot of why particularly conservative policymakers continue to attack programs that help families afford the basics like housing is of course because they feel that there will be no political consequences. There’s this conventional wisdom oh poor people don’t vote, they’re obviously not going to be the source of huge campaign donations that keep elected officials in office and safely there so really what does it matter? We’ll be able to cut key programs like affordable housing even in the middle of a affordable housing crisis and get away with it. That’s certainly what seems to be in the minds of not just Donald Trump but his Republican colleagues in congress, Speaker Paul Ryan chief among them. That’s a huge part of what you have looked to challenge the conventional wisdom on over the years through these types of actions.
HONKALA: Yes definitely. Most everything that I’ve done and that members of the organization have done, we’ve taken from some different period in history and it was actually here in Philadelphia that during the boom of the foreclosure crisis I decided that I needed to run for sheriff to halt foreclosures and evictions and so I ran on zero evictions campaign and actually I had learned that during the Civil Rights Movement in the south many African-Americans decided to run for sheriff just to stop the lynchings. And so I saw running for sheriff as a very pragmatic to deal with the foreclosure crisis because then I could concentrate on big corporations that hadn’t paid their back taxes as opposed to putting on the top of the agenda foreclosing and moving families out of their homes that have gone behind in their mortgages due to banks that were ripping them off. So it was of course quite a challenge because in most low-income communities there’s no faith in law enforcement so I got a horse and literally rode on the horse through the neighborhood and announced that there was a new sheriff in town and that was one that going to institute a zero tolerance on evictions and so we were able to use that campaign as a way to educate folks and then many other low-income folks and conscious individuals in different parts of the country began to run for sheriff as well.
VALLAS: Now the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign which you still work with and currently serve as it’s national organizer was formed in response to what is often called and misleadingly so quote, unquote “welfare reform” when in 1996 with some level of limited bipartisan support then President Bill Clinton signed into law huge, huge cuts to a whole range of programs that help families make ends meet and really ended welfare as we know it, that was that quote dominating the discussion in those years. And the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign really was a direct response to that legislation and the assault on low-income people’s basic living standards that it created. And at the time, a lot of the language, in fact, the mission statement of the organization was really very much about uniting the poor across color lines as a leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty. It was very much linked up to human rights language. The mission statement contitues, “we work to accomplish this through advancing economic human rights as named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to food, to housing, health, education, communication and a living wage job.” What is the campaign up to today and what is it doing in response to these continued threats that are much more partisan than they were in the mid ’90s but in many ways continue the work of that harmful legislation?
HONKALA: Well this year makes the 50th anniversary of King’s poor people’s campaign and march from Mississippi and we all know he was assassinated before he was able to go forward on that march. We intend to reenact that march and on June 2nd we will be marching anywhere from 10 to 22 miles a day with over 500 families setting up encampments along the road side and we will reset up a resurrection city once we arrive on the 14th in Washington DC. We’ll be joined by what’s called the homeless marathon which are a bunch of radio folks that are committed to telling the stories of what’s been deemed the nobody’s in this country which are basically poor and homeless people and so we will begin the process of trying to humanize those of us that are on the chopping block in this country and recommit ourselves to building this multiracial intergenerational movement that’s led by the poor. Now what’s happening in this country is, we’re really not just up against the bad Trump administration, we’re also up against the non-profit industrial complex because many folks in this non-profit world are doing horrible things that we’d never seen before in hopes that they’ll be the few organizations that are left after the cuts go through and so we think it’s really important that we continue as a people in this country to support a movement that really is led by the poor ourselves in an effort to end poverty, hunger and homelessness. We don’t want bigger and better welfare checks, we want our right to living wage jobs, to all the basic necessities of life and in exchange we’re able to be productive citizens and contribute to society. We refuse to proceed from this notion that there’s not enough to go around. That we’re dealing with scarcity. This is not some other place in the world were we’re talking about development issues. So it’s really a question of poor people and people that understand that their survival is linked to poor people as well. We want to begin to work together and create a more cooperative society for all of us to be able to live decent and dignified lives to raise our children. So people might not be on the chopping block today but they might be tomorrow so we’re encouraging people to pull up our website at economichumanrights.org. Again that’s economichumanrights.org and figure out how to get involved whether you’re a songwriter, whether you want to come for one day on the March and help with childcare, make some food, if you want to help us setting our different encampments in different parts of the country or participating in some of the marches and demonstrations. We encourage people just to get a hold of us, we’ll put you in contact with somebody but the only way that we’re going to survive the decades to come is if we begin to understand who our friends really are and begin to get organized and begin to see these things truly as human rights violations and really begin to understand that there’s enough to go around. This I just a question of organization and the last thing poor people need is pity, what we need in this country is political power and we can achieve that by getting organized and linking up with all of our listeners.
VALLAS: Cheri Honkala is the founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, she’s also the national organizer and one of the founders of the Poor People’s Human Rights Campaign. Cheri, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me this morning and I so appreciate the work that you’ve done over the decades. There’s a lot to learn from all of the things that you and your partners over the years have done.
HONKALA: Thank you so much.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.