In Reagan’s View, Poor Are Just Dumb

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, May 27, 1986

President Reagan has finally explained the true cause of poverty and hunger in this country: The poor are either determinedly uninformed or just plain dumb.

That’s the essence of what he told a group of high school students last Wednesday who expressed curiosity about why he wasn’t “taking care of people at home.”

He said: “I don’t believe that there is anyone going hungry in American simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them. It is by people not knowing where or how to get this help.”

The president, of course, didn’t come right out and call the poor stupid. He’s too polite for that.

But when he says they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, you know the Great Communicator is not blaming himself for that ignorance.

Beyond that, his remarks were clearly an extension of the theory that he and his surrogate communicators have been developing for some time: The poor remain poor because they prefer it that way.

The theory was unveiled a couple of years ago when Edwin Meese III, then the president’s counselor and now the attorney general, said: “We’ve had considerable information that people go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that’s easier than paying for it.”

A few weeks later, the president himself enlarged the analysis, on a network morning television show. “What we have found in this country, and we’re more aware of it now,” he said, “is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

You see, they’ve got to be stupid to want to sleep outside in the middle of a freezing winter.

So now we can grasp the essential truth.

What’s on the increase in America — contrary to the populist, bleeding-heart view — is not poverty or hunger or homelessness. It’s stupidity. This helps explain a Harvard study, released on the same day last week that the president spoke on the ignorance of the hungry, which found that the Reagan administration had created a red-tape morass that was keeping millions of eligible poor people from obtaining food stamps and discouraging others from even applying.

The moral of that study, any Reaganaut can tell you, is that if the poor had any brains, they’d find a way to get those food stamps.

The poor apparently offend President Reagan merely by the reminder of their presence — much as they offended President Herbert Hoover during the Depression. “Nobody is actually starving,” Hoover said. “The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been.” At least he didn’t call them stupid.

Once in a while, the Reagan stupidity thesis gets jarred by the facts, as at a hearing of the House Budget Committee in February when Budget Director James Miller III was asked if the homeless were a problem in the United States.

First he gave the obligatory compassionate response: “Yes, it is a very bad thing. It tugs on one’s heart strings.”

But, not being stupid, he added, “We believe the homeless are not a federal responsibility but a state and local responsibility.”

As evidence nonetheless of the administration’s big heart, Miller pointed to Community Services Block Grants, which can be used by localities to assist the homeless.

This puzzled Rep. Mike Lowry (D- Wash.), who reminded Miller that the administration’s budget proposes eliminating the grants in 1987 for a savings of $306 million.

The congressman noted further that $70 million for the homeless in the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency would also be eliminated.

Miller didn’t have any answers for Lowry, but he said he would go back and talk to his staff about the details.

Don’t be stupid, forget the details. That’s not what this is all about.

This is about Silver Screen America, where the poor are noble and strong — and smart enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in time for the happy ending.

For this is the summer of the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday, when glorious speeches will be made about Emma Lazarus’ words on the statue’s base — her poem that welcome the tired and the poor and “the homeless, tempest-tost”.

The oratory will probably focus on our immigrant past but will not likely dwell long on the “homeless, tempest-tost” who are with us in the present.

They won’t be at the big July 4th celebration anyway.

They know where they’re not wanted. They know they take the fun out of everything, being so miserable and wretched. And stupid.

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