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'In a wealthy state, the poor are demonized'

Last modified: 7/19/2011 12:00:00 AM
Considering the draconian state budget drafted by New Hampshire House Republicans this year, we were not surprised to learn that Speaker Bill O'Brien is no advocate of programs designed to help needy families make it through financial crises. But his cavalier ability to demonize the poor - and to blame a program created to alleviate poverty for the very consequences of poverty - is startling nonetheless.

In a recent speech to the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers, O'Brien had this critique of the "spenders" and "looters" that he and his new Republican majority are out to foil:

"They pay mothers to have children out of wedlock and then wonder why family is breaking down, welfare programs are constantly growing and children come to school with problems so severe they can't be educated. They pay people to stay out of work and then wonder why our economy's anemic."

O'Brien, according to a House GOP spokesman, was referring to the federal-state welfare program called TANF - Temporary Aid to Needy Families. In New Hampshire these days, recipients of such aid include about 11,000 poor people, most of whom are children, according to federal statistics.

To them - and to all of us - O'Brien's comments are insulting in several directions.

The speaker broadly implies that families in financial crisis use government assistance to avoid work. That without such assistance, they would easily find jobs. That unmarried parents - presumably women - are responsible for severe disabilities among their children. That women have children in order to increase the size of their welfare check. That there is something immoral about the poor. That having kids out of wedlock is a particular quirk of the lower class.

It's a harshly simplistic world view O'Brien spins in his speech. And if it were just rhetoric, it would be bad enough. But House Policy Director Greg Moore told the Monitor last week that Republican leaders are considering preventing mothers from receiving more assistance when they have more children.

The inevitable result? More poor kids. Not exactly the New Hampshire Advantage.

The irony, of course, is that while O'Brien makes rhetorical boogiemen out of single-parent families, the Republicans this year eliminated a small program to help needy two-parent households where both parents were unemployed.

The Unemployed Parents Program helped folks look for work and provided $675 to $798 monthly to families with two unemployed parents. It was barely enough to cover rent, but in some cases it kept parents and kids from homelessness. The idea behind the program was to help keep struggling families intact; about 250 recipients lost their benefits.

O'Brien's disheartening comments about welfare recipients follow similarly impolitic insults by House Republican leaders toward college kids, mental health patients and union members in the past several months. New Hampshire voters in the 2012 election will no doubt think twice about the House they created in 2010. In the meantime, rank-and-file House members should ask themselves: Is this really the public face they hope to present to the state and the world?


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