The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oklahoma Republicans found a disturbing way to describe the poor on Facebook

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In 2010, South Carolina's then lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer, compared government assistance for the poor to feeding stray animals.

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals," Bauer was quoted as saying. "You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."

Bauer later said his comments were taken out of context while acknowledging that using the phrase "stray animals" wasn't the right "metaphor." Still, the analogy hasn't gone away. Last year, Annette Bosworth, a little-known candidate who was vying to become South Dakota's Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, likened food stamp recipients to wild animals.

And just last night, the Oklahoma Republican Party did the same, on its Facebook page. The post, which has since been deleted, is the same as Bosworth shared last year — nearly verbatim.

On the surface, these are independent, unrelated statements. But when they are juxtaposed one on top of the other, and signed off with the phrase "Thus ends today's lesson in irony," they send a  clear message to those who advocate for the poor.

"It compares feeding hungry people to feeding animals," said Joel Berg, who is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and the author of "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?" "I have many thoughts about this, but let's start with how it dehumanizes the poor and hungry. It's frustrating that I even have to discuss or acknowledge this."

Berg, who spends much of his time working on issues around hunger, poverty, and government assistance programs, points out that Bosworth's first statement isn't even factually correct. The number of food stamp recipients actually peaked in 2012 and has, indeed, fallen since.

But that is besides the point, he says. Rather, he argues it's just an indicator of the hostility among some Americans at helping the poor — a hostility that he says has harmed efforts to help some of the nation's neediest.

"This sort of mentality is nothing new," he said. "It actually goes back very far. It makes both my job a lot more difficult and poor people feel like crap."

Randy Brogdon, who is the chairman of Oklahoma Republican Party and the author of the now deleted Facebook post, did not respond to a call seeking comment. But he published an apology hours later.

"Last night, there was a post on our OKGOP Facebook page, and it was misinterpreted by many," the apology, which was posted at approximately 1 p.m. on Tuesday. "This post was supposed to be an analogy that compared two situations illustrating the cycle of government dependency in America, not humans as animals."

While these comments may represent rhetorical extremes, policymakers in several states have also taken aim at assistance for low-income people this year. A Missouri Republican, citing profligate spending habits among SNAP recipients in the state, proposed banning the purchase of seafood and steak. It was referred to committee. Kansas legislators voted to limit the activities of welfare recipients and to limit cash withdrawals for beneficiaries, requiring more frequent trips to the ATM and effectively reducing their overall benefits. Some of these changes are still working their way through the system.

A common underlying theme to both the rhetoric and the policy measures seems to be the notion that the poor are somehow spendthrifts when it comes to using their aid. But the evidence suggests the very opposite: The poor are much more cautious with their cash because they have so much less of it.

To make the point, Berg inverted a common expression adopted by those who worry about creating dependency — "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

"What if you had to account for the fact that someone already stole the fish, or polluted the lake?" he said. "What if there was an electric fence around it so you couldn't actually fish? The saying doesn't stand anymore, does it?"

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