To help us understand the fury over the “private option,” food stamps and all the other initiatives to help the poor, may we channel good old J. Marion Futrell once more?
Governor Futrell, remember, was our hero last week. When he took office in 1933, Futrell clutched all the old cliches about people who were not getting ahead. It was the result of their own sloth, and to the extent society could be faulted, it was owing to modernization — machinery that accustomed people to avoiding hard labor. It had made them bums.
Futrell had lots of quirky ideas — crime and laziness were hereditary so the government should castrate or sterilize repeat offenders and “incompetents” — but his notions about the poor were widely held, even in those darkest days of the Depression.
The same old cliches ricochet through the debates in Washington and in Arkansas over whether to cut food stamps, end Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as entitlements, shorten jobless aid, raise the minimum wage, provide pre-kindergarten for poor kids or reverse the swelling income inequality.
Nowadays, it’s government dependency from previous efforts to reduce poverty that is supposed to have made people shiftless. You hear it in the justifications of tea-party radicals like Tom Cotton for their votes against food stamps and attacks on the rest of the social safety net. And you hear it in the determined voices of the handful of Arkansas legislators who plan this month to terminate health insurance for low-wage workers because it was Barack Obama’s idea.
But back to our hero, Futrell, who came down from Paragould to save Arkansas from a feckless government and a citizenry gone indolent. When we left him last week he had amended the Constitution to virtually halt taxation and spending forever, only to discover that taxing and spending were exactly what would save the state.
His amendment to give power over taxing and spending to a fraction of the legislature — only nine of 135 can block a tax or an appropriation favored by an overwhelming majority — was ratified in 1934. In a desperate attempt to revive the economy and keep body and soul together for a third of the population, the federal government provided surplus commodities and later food stamps for the poor and picked up other costs for struggling state governments, asking only that the states match its benevolence in small sums.
They all did, except Futrell’s Arkansas. In the desperate winter of ’34-’35, it came to Futrell that he was wrong about the poor and about the government’s proper role. It helped that sharecroppers and day laborers were rising up against the system that often left the distribution of federal relief to the plantation owners and local bosses. He was harassed daily by people begging for state jobs.
It helped, too, that Uncle Sam was fed up with Arkansas, which didn’t put up a dime for relief, and with the bitching from Arkansas leaders about the government efforts. If Arkansas did not ante up some money by March 1, President Roosevelt’s relief director said, federal aid to Arkansas would end.
A chastened Futrell begged legislators to raise taxes — any taxes — and increase spending. (Mike Huckabee reprised Futrell’s speech in 2003 when he told lawmakers he would gratefully sign every tax bill they sent him.)
Futrell said Washington had spent $45,135,502 to feed Arkansans and pay their teachers and he now regretted officials griping about the waste when he and the legislature had put up “not one dollar” for the cause. So the legislature sent him taxes and he signed them. It was Futrell who established the modern Arkansas tax system, which lifted Arkansas from bankruptcy and paid for the first real public education system.
The 80th anniversary of that day will fall next week, when the legislature will build next year’s budget upon a single decision — whether to end the lifeline the legislature threw the working poor a year ago when it used its option under Obamacare to insure the last segment of the poor — childless adults — with federal money.
It is hard to see how nine or 10 senators can end help to nearly all the state’s needy — those in nursing homes, the disabled who get prescription help, the blind and disabled and the 400,000 children served by Huckabee’s Medicaid expansion in 1997. But that is what the small band is poised to do.
The legislators will not be voting just to scrap Obamacare aid but the whole Medicaid program, including 23,000 elderly and disabled in nursing homes, because they are all part of the same appropriation. That may not bother them. If people are at fault for not getting jobs that would pay for their health care, it applies to all the needy and their spawn, not just the childless adults Obamacare covers. Finally — a chance to show 800,000 shiftless Arkies the wages of not having initiative and a good-paying job.