Clay Wirestone: Lawmakers have declared war on the poor. They betray the 340,000 Kansans living in poverty. (Column)

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A battle cry has burst from the Kansas Statehouse, echoing through the marble halls and luxurious chambers. Legislators have focused their energies and coercive powers on a group of some 340,000 Kansans, more than the population of Overland Park.

They have declared war on poor people.

You only had to visit the Statehouse on Thursday, when a room packed with advocates faced an out-of-state group supporting a bill that would criminalize homelessness. A senior fellow from the Cicero Institute was the sole supporter of House Bill 2430, which mirrors legislation the group has backed in other states.

Read Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith’s account of the hearing. Look at the faces of those in attendance, and listen to what they have to say. Then understand that this bill was far from the first volley aimed poor people in Kansas.

Already this session, leaders have thrown their weight behind a “flat tax” proposal that would give a dollar (no, that’s not a typo) to those on the lower end of the income spectrum while doling out tens of thousands to the wealthiest. That same welfare reform committee has given its stamp of approval to bills tightening access to food assistance. Because goodness knows, if you don’t follow arbitrary rules set by the state, you don’t deserve to eat.

“The Bible doesn’t say lock up and erase the stranger,” said Charles Carney at the Thursday hearing. “It says welcome the stranger with open arms. It doesn’t say when I was homeless, you gave me the trauma of a jail cell.”

Charles Carney
 Charles Carney and his wife have welcomed the homeless poor into their house near downtown Kansas City, Kansas, for the past 18 years. He attended the March 2, 2023, House Welfare Reform Committee hearing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Absurd cliches

Those behind such policies will argue passionately that they actually have the interests of poor people at heart. They want to make their lives better by offering a hand up, not a handout. Rather than give a man a fish, they want to teach him how to select bait and cast into the big lake of our U.S. economy.

I understand this is what they say. I do not believe them, and I will not entertain their cliches today. Kansas has a sorry tradition of clobbering the poor with draconian regulations, spreading misery for needy families. (Studies have shown the best way to ameliorate poverty is giving people money and resources.) No one has thrived.

Senate President Ty Masterson has a solution, though. While testifying in favor of a flat tax, he said low-income Kansans should simply find a job.

“Is this meant to only help those less fortunate? I think the answer is no,” he said. “They’re to be helped, but it’s to help all Kansans, not just those less fortunate, because the structure’s there. The best thing for them is a job.”

Indeed. The best thing for poor people is a job.

It’s just a shame the poor people of Kansas aren’t able to draw a six-figure salary from Wichita State University as “director of GoCreate, a Koch Collaborative,” as Masterson does. He’s even luckier to have landed such a plum role after filing for personal bankruptcy more than a decade ago. Many people’s lives would be ruined by such an experience, but perhaps they should try being elected to the Kansas Senate.

Senate President Ty Masterson
 Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, has testified in support of a flat tax plan while limiting sales tax relief for food. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Defining poverty

Let’s understand the scope of the problem before going further.

Each year, the U.S. government sets the official poverty line. For 2023, that’s $14,580 a year. For a family of three, it’s set at $24,860.

Don’t think that anyone can live well or even economically at those wages. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, a livable wage in Kansas for an individual should be $32,635.20 a year, or $15.69 an hour. For a family of three, with two adults working, the living wage would be $76,169.60 a year, or $18.31 an hour apiece.

Regardless, we will use the federal government’s metrics for now. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11.7% of Kansans live in poverty as of 2021, the most recent data they have available. With a state population of 2,937,150, that means 343,647 Kansans live in poverty. Taken as a whole, that population would be the second-largest city in the entire state of Kansas.

To put it another way, if you randomly selected 10 folks from the Sunflower State off the street, at least one of every 10 people would be living in poverty.

Don’t tell me that our state doesn’t have a problem. Don’t tell me that poor people just need to work harder and keep a better attitude. One out of every 10 of us needs help. Hundreds of thousands of us throughout the state go without basic needs such as food, shelter and health care.

The notion that we would accept such suffering — and then decide that the solution is making life harder — should offend you. It offends me. It should offend Kansas legislators, too.

House Welfare Reform Committee on homelessness
 The meeting of the House Welfare Reform Committee on March 2, 2023, was packed with advocates and those potentially affected by the proposed legislation criminalizing homelessness. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Mental blinders

All of us wear mental blinders that make us susceptible to mistaken beliefs about poor people. You know the kind I mean. “They lay around all day.” “They want a government handout.” “They should have finished school.”

We believe, as a society, in the just world fallacy. That is, that good people reap rewards while bad people suffer punishments. Just reading the news should disabuse you of that notion. But we believe it nonetheless, because we fear the alternative is embracing chaos and despair. If working hard doesn’t pay off, why should we work? If bad things happen to good people at random, why shouldn’t we live for pleasure every waking moment?

Experiments from the 1960s beginning at the University of Kansas showed how we lie to ourselves. Subjects were given electric shocks if they failed a learning task. Observers at first felt sympathy and distress for the people being shocked. But as the punishments continued, something terrible happened.

“When given the option of changing the experiment, the vast majority chose to end the electric shocks,” writes Nicholas Hune-Brown for Hazlitt Magazine. “When they weren’t given that option, however, (social psychologist Melvin) Lerner witnessed a disturbing reaction. As the participants continued to watch, unable to alter the victim’s fate, they began to derogate the woman. Different groups were told she was being paid different amounts of money for the experiment. The lower the pay, the more the subjects disliked her. Irrationally, with no evidence to support it, the observers became convinced the woman deserved her punishment.”

Lerner hypothesized that observers came to these terrible conclusions because they wanted to live in a just world. It was easier to believe others deserved their painful lot in life.

Kansans have a moral duty to recognize and refute this fallacy in ourselves.

Sister Therese Bangert
 Sister Therese Bangert of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth testifies at the March 2, 2023, hearing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Speaking truth

There is nothing wrong with being poor. There is nothing virtuous about being rich.

Many poor people have tried with all their might and for all their lives to do better for themselves or their families and have not managed to do so. Many rich people have wallowed in excess and spent profligately and remained wealthy beyond measure.

This is not just. This is not right. But it is the way the world spins.

Not one person is better because he or she earned a million dollars or a billion dollars. That wealth buys comfort and corruption, but it cannot buy virtue. While our minds may resist seeing this truth, global faith traditions understand it perfectly well. I may not be the world’s most observant Christian (or a Christian at all), yet I attended enough Sunday school classes and church services to know that God says: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

The same Kansas legislative leaders who heap scorn upon the poor also rush to claim the mantle of divinity. They claim to espouse Christian values and champion a Christian state. Yet it was Jesus Christ, a man who sacrificed his life to spread a message of salvation, who said the following.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

Those who would declare war on the poor don’t just betray some 340,000 Kansans. They betray their own religion’s teachings as well.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

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