By Julianne Malveaux
The right wing seems determined to associate President Obama with any government program that helps people on the bottom. Thus, the term Obamacare was used to attack the health care program that President Obama fashioned and worked with Congress to approve. While Obamacare is not perfect, it brings more people into the health care system, and further solidifies the safety net that many have attempted to fray.
Now these folks are running with the term “Obamaphone,” which speaks to the fact that President Obama has simply extended a Lifeline plan that was authorized by Republican President Ronald Reagan when it was clear that those who were either isolated by poverty or by their rural status needed telephones to connect themselves to the world.
The Reagan program used taxes on some of us to provide telephones for the rest of us. People were able to get a telephone that offered basic service for a basic fee. With the onset of technology, Lifeline customers had the option of getting a landline phone or a cellular phone. This is not an Obama initiative. It began in 1996.
Those who get a subsidized telephone have numerous restrictions. They don’t get to choose their phone, but are offered whatever is available, usually a refurbished phone. They get 250 minutes a month if they get a cell phone. The 250 minutes is about four hours a month, or an hour a week. Is this really some kind of rip off, or is it a reasonable way to bring people on the periphery to the center? What do you do with no phone when there is a medical emergency or even a job call? Absent Lifeline, you are yet again a peripheral citizen.
Obamaphone? Give me a break. Until the Tea Party began to hold sway on our national consciousness, Republicans were among those who embraced the notion that every American should have basic telephone service. Now, anything associated with government assistance is associated with President Obama, despite the fact that both Democratic and Republican presidents have attempted to assist people at the bottom, albeit with different levels of energy.
Let’s not forget that it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who pushed the “welfare reform” that limited government assistance to 60 months or five years. When President Clinton, long a favorite among African Americans, proffered a 1996 reform that I described as “welfare deform,” several of his African American supporters excoriated him. He weathered the storm, as did the public assistance program. Still, nobody describes it as Clintonwelfare. It was an ill- conceived and pandering policy change that allowed President Clinton to brag that he’d gotten “tough” on public assistance.
Associating President Obama with government support to the poor is a subtle way of associating people of African descent with public assistance, and with the pejorative term “welfare.” This is a most understated form of racial coding, a coding that enabled former Congressman Newt Gingrich to describe President Obama as a “food stamps” president and to falsely assert that President Obama “put” more people on food stamps than any other president in history. Does Mr. Gingrich remember the Great Recession that the scion of his party, former President George W. Bush, enabled, or is he too busy purchasing jewelry for his blushing bride of a decade to pay attention to our nation’s economic situation?
One in six Americans lives in poverty. More than one in four African Americans and Latinos live in poverty. One in 10 of all Whites live in poverty. The Great Recession and economic restructuring have kicked these diverse groups of poor people, many who are grateful for food assistance, to the curb. President Obama has been responsive to this group of people to the extent that a hostile Congress has allowed it.
If I were President Obama, I’d be flattered by descriptions of Obamacare and Obamaphones. I would not even mind having food stamps being described as Obamafood. Would we prefer to describe poverty as Romney starve, or sequester starve? Make it plain. Associating President Obama with health care, Lifeline telephones and healthy eating is to his credit, not his detriment.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.