The Follies (of dividing and conquering and punishing the poor)

The Follies (of dividing and conquering and punishing the poor)

- in Fitzsimon File

In October of 2011 House Speaker Thom Tillis told a group of Republicans in Madison County that one of his goals as a leader in North Carolina was to “find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance” by convincing people with a disability to “look down” at other people who receive help from the government.

In other words, there are good poor people and bad poor people and he wants to punish the ones he decides aren’t worthy of our help.

Tillis’ disturbing comments were captured on video and prompted widespread outrage and criticism when they were reported.

Now, fifteen months later Tillis and other Republican legislative leaders are doing their best to achieve his goal of not only dividing and conquering the poor, but punishing them.

The 2013 General Assembly has been in session only two weeks and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate have already voted to slash unemployment benefits and the length of time people who are laid off can receive them and to deny emergency benefits to as many as 170,000 long-term unemployed workers even though there are three people looking for work for every job that is available.

Extending the emergency benefits would not cost the state a dime. The federal government would pay for them.

They have voted to deny unemployment to single mothers who lose their jobs because they can’t find someone to take care of their child when a factory manager forces them to switch from first shift to third.

They have voted to refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and deny health care to more than 500,000 low-income people who cannot afford coverage on their own and despite the rhetorical claims otherwise, that decision was not financial either.

The federal government will pay for 100 percent of the expansion for three years and 90 percent after that. This was about dividing and conquering and punishing the poor, not protecting the state budget.

The House also voted this week to allow the state’s earned income tax credit to expire at the end of 2013. That’s a tax credit to help the working poor and it’s hardly a liberal idea. It was strongly supported by former President Ronald Reagan, who many Republican legislators claim as their political hero, as a way to reward hard work.

Senate leaders are touting a tax reform plan would increase taxes on the low-income families and the middle class and give a $41,000 tax cut to people who earn more than a million dollars a year. It would force low-income people to pay a state sales tax on bread and milk to fund the tax cut for the wealthy.

And that’s all low-income people, including seniors and people with disabilities.

Legislative leaders are clamoring to require all voters to have a government-issued photo ID before they are allowed to vote, even though they know that most people without a current ID are seniors, people with a disability and the poor.

Powerful legislators have introduced proposals to allow unscrupulous and predatory payday lenders to prey on the poor with their obscenely high interest rate and high fee loans and a former Republican House Speaker is one of their lobbyists.

We should have known all this was coming. Tillis made it clear 15 months ago what he wanted to accomplish and he and his Republican colleagues are well on the way, dividing and conquering and punishing and exploiting the poor.

This isn’t just politics or a shift in policy priorities. This is an all-out war on the poor and when it’s over North Carolina may never be the same.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.