It’s much easier to deal with poverty if you can convince yourself that the impoverished brought it on themselves. Nearly everyone would concur that those who suffer from poverty through no fault of their own deserve support from others, either through nonprofit or public sector assistance. But if they’re poor because of their own bad decisions? They have to fend for themselves.
Coupled with guilt about the struggles of poor Americans, that instinct leads to an awkward place. There’s a psychological reward to looking for reasons that the poor aren’t really poor: It allows you to then more easily leave those less fortunate to their fate. For those disinclined to want the government to spend resources addressing poverty, the same reward is in effect. Drug-testing welfare recipients, stories about those on food stamps splurging on high-cost items, even reports from the Heritage Foundation pointing out that most poor people own televisions — all have the same net effect. To some extent, the poor are responsible for their own poverty, and therefore, it’s less urgent or unnecessary for us to be.
On Tuesday morning, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) appeared on CNN’s “New Day” program to discuss the Republicans’ proposed alternative to the Affordable Care Act and made a variant on that argument.
Asked by host Alisyn Camerota if people would lose coverage under the proposal, Chaffetz responded:
“We are getting rid of the individual mandate. We are getting rid of those things that people said that they don’t want. And, you know what? Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest that in health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.”
Interestingly, the first part of Chaffetz’s claim was undercut by new polling from CNN itself. With its polling partner ORC, the network found that Americans are split on the mandate that individuals have health coverage. Fifty percent oppose the stipulation and 48 percent favor it. Even 45 percent of Republicans support keeping the mandate, which makes some sense given that that aspect of what we now call Obamacare evolved from a conservative proposal.
But it was Chaffetz’s next statement that curdled social media: “Rather than getting that new iPhone … maybe they should invest that in health care.” Chaffetz doesn’t specifically say “the poor should make better choices,” but the implication is clear. If you have only limited money to spend, you should spend it more wisely.
There are a lot of problems with the choice that Chaffetz presents. For one, an iPhone can be a one-time cost, while health-care spending is recurring. For another, the cost of a new phone pales in comparison to the cost of health care or health insurance. He intentionally uses “iPhone” instead of cellphone, since a new, unsubsidized iPhone is at the pricier end of the cellphone cost scale, at about $700. But a year of health insurance for an individual is over $6,000. Put another way, an iPhone is only slightly more than a month of insurance. And that gap has increased. In 2014, the New York Times pointed out that costs for consumer goods had decreased over time, while costs for things like health care have risen.
Chaffetz also falls into the trap that we outlined at the beginning. He’s judging one particular luxury cost against something that he positions as more important and responsible. One can pit health insurance costs against other spending, too, by reframing Chaffetz’s quote: Rather than paying rent, maybe they should invest that in health care. Rather than paying for a tutor, maybe they should invest that in health care. Rather than visiting family, maybe they should invest that in health care. Rather than paying for cable, maybe they should invest that in health care.
A key challenge to poverty is that decisions about how to spend money and the struggles of prioritizing are constant. Some of those decisions are bad ones over the long-term, certainly, as are some of anyone’s. But some are nearly existential.
Chaffetz is framing his choice on terms that position the poor as ignorant and wasteful so that he can bolster the case for revamping health care policy. But “iPhone” is a particularly weird foil for that argument. A smartphone is not a luxury, it’s a critical tool of modern society. The newest iPhone isn’t critical, but some smartphone is, particularly in households without Internet access otherwise. Recognizing that necessity, the government provides subsidies for phone and Internet service to those who participate in welfare programs. This, of course, was the much-derided “Obamaphone” program — actually called “Lifeline” — which originated under President Reagan.
The pejorative “Obamaphone” formulation often ran alongside another aspect of the debate over supporting poor Americans: The presumption that most of the poor are black. While poverty rates are higher among black Americans, far more poor Americans are white. They are often, in a real sense, the base of demographic support that pushed President Trump to the White House: whites without college educations. Chaffetz is implicitly chastising this group for making bad economic choices.
There’s another way in which Chaffetz’s dichotomy is incomplete. Buy an iPhone, and, save your monthly plan, the amount of money you spend on your phone has been spent. Buy insurance, and you may still need to pay an enormous amount of money on health care in the event of an emergency. One of the primary rationales for the Affordable Care Act was to absorb some of the costs of expensive emergency or chronic conditions. Buy insurance and you’ve got basic care covered. Get in a car accident or learn you have cancer and that calculus changes quickly.
We’ve traveled further down this path than we needed to. Chaffetz isn’t offering practical life advice, he’s offering political rhetoric. The simplest path to generating opposition to government spending is to frame that spending as wasteful, and the simplest path to generating skepticism about poverty is to suggest that it’s avoidable if people take more responsibility for themselves. Chaffetz’s comment on the iPhone was about making America feel comfortable with a political choice, not about the actual problems of health-care access and poverty.
Which is a critique that has been leveled at the legislation itself.
Update: Asked by Fox News to respond to the controversy over his comments, Chaffetz made the implicit argument explicit. “People need to make a conscious choice,” he said, “and I believe in self-reliance.”