It is too easy to ignore the plight of the working poor by convincing ourselves that they are to blame for their poverty, that it is simply their bad choices that keep them from moving into the middle class. But that’s more an exercise in self-comfort than reality.
For an alarming number of Americans, poverty isn’t a choice; it’s a state your born into and find impossible to escape. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, requiring people to choose between getting to work, putting food on the table and keeping a family together.
It is this context that makes comments Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a study in tone deafness. One day after the GOP rolled out a plan to replace Obamacare, Chaffetz was discussing access for low-income Americans in an interview on CNN. “You know what, Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice,” the House Oversight Committee chairman said. “And so maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
What is Chaffetz implying? That poor Americans should be able to afford health care if they skip the smartphone? Or that maybe the poor would be able to afford the important things in life if only they stopped wasting money on luxury items?
Either reading is offensive. Americans across the income spectrum are already making difficult choices when it comes to affording health care. And the working poor, who would be most affected by Republicans’ plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, are making onerous choices just to get by.
Do they stay at home with a sick child, even if they might lose their job? Do they pay the rent or the gas bill or the water bill or buy food? Do they see a doctor they can’t afford – or wait until they’re forced to visit an emergency room?
These are real-life choices made by people who won’t have a congressional pension to look forward to upon retirement or a pathway to a job on K Street. The price of a smartphone – which, by the way, is a growing necessity in the modern world – isn’t the reason they are living paycheck to paycheck or can’t afford health care. Life is.
Health care is a necessity, but when there is more month left than dollars to go around, the working poor have to make especially difficult choices – taking what is available or nothing at all.
Chaffetz talked himself into a firestorm of criticism. (One example on Twitter: “My broken ankle cost $117,000 so that’s around 234 iPhones.)
Even fellow Republican Rep. Larry Buchson of Indiana called Chaffetz’s comments unwarranted.
Hours later, Chaffetz acknowledged, “Maybe I didn’t say it as smoothly as I possibly could,” but then doubled down on the underlying point: “I believe in self-reliance.”
And those with low incomes do not? The struggles of hard-working Americans shouldn’t be trivialized as a choice between an iPhone and health care.