The issue is a bit complex and involves the ever-exciting topic of American health-care policy, but it does seem to speak to a wider issue as well, so bear with me.
The background boils down to this:
There is a government programme (with federal money being administered by individual states) called the 'State Children's Health Insurance Program' (SCHIP). As the Baltimore Sun describes it,
Popular with the states, the health insurance program, also known as SCHIP, covers 6.6 million children from modest-income families that are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.(Note for non-Americans: Medicaid is the public health insurance programme for poor people.)
Democrats, with support from a number of Republican representatives and senators, passed an act (H.R. 976) aimed at making changes to SCHIP: the programme was to be expanded to include some 4 million more children at a cost of $35 billion over the next five years, the costs to be funded out of increased tobacco taxes.
President Bush signalled his intention to veto the act when it reached his desk.
In response, Democrats invited a 12-year-old boy, Graeme Frost, to deliver their response to the president's weekly radio address.
Now, I have my own qualms about this kind of emotive political message-making: I don't know why rational adults can't have a reasonable discussion about social policy without having to push the sympathy button.
But in the world of American politics, these sorts of things are standard operating procedure, something Republicans know all too well, and this has long been the case, particularly in issues related to education, families, and disability.
Then, too, perhaps 'putting a human face' on abstract policy questions isn't always a bad idea.
Context, after all, is sometimes helpful. (For example: $35 billion over five years is indeed a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the as much as $190 billion which may be spent next year alone in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a figure that itself excludes all other military spending.)
And Graeme, in this case, fit the role, as the Sun notes:
Graeme and his 9-year-old sister, Gemma, were passengers in the family SUV in December 2004 when it hit a patch of black ice and slammed into a tree. Both were taken to a hospital with severe brain trauma. Graeme was in a coma for a week and still requires physical therapy.
Bonnie Frost works for a medical publishing firm; her husband, Halsey, is a woodworker. They are raising their four children on combined income of about $45,000 a year. Neither gets health insurance through work.
Having priced private insurance that would cost more than their mortgage - about $1,200 a month - they continue to rely on the government program. In Maryland, families that earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level - about $60,000 for a family of four - are eligible.
So, the story so far:
1. there's an established health care programme;
2. a bill has been passed through both houses with bi-partisan support to expand it in response to a real social change;
3. the president threatened to veto it;
4. the bill's supporters presented a family as an example of the kind of people who might be assisted by this bill and their son appeared in a radio broadcast.
So far, so good.
However, the president (who had proposed increasing the funding for the programme by only $5 billion over five years), made good on his promised veto.
Which is bad enough.
But the really disgusting part of the story is the hateful campaign by the more wingery-nuttery right-wing bloggers to smear the family.
Think Progress summarises the sort of bile being spewed:
Very good antidotes to this toxic brew are available from Joe Gandelman, Whiskey Fire, Lawyers, Guns and Money, Atrios, Ezra Klein, and John Cole.
Conservatives have more recently turned their targets on young Graeme Frost himself. A poster at the Free Republic propagated information alleging that Frost was actually a rich kid being pampered by the government. Among other bits of information, the post by the Freeper “icwhatudo” asserts that Graeme and his sister Gemma attend wealthy schools that cost “nearly $40,000 per year for tuition” and live in a well-off home.
The smear attack against Graeme has taken firm hold in the right-wing blogosphere. The National Review, Michelle Malkin, Wizbang, Powerline, and the Weekly Standard blog have all launched assaults on the Frost family. The story is slowly working its way into traditional media outlets as well.
I've browsed around in the links provided by Talking Points, and really, you have to shake your head.
There is a lot of discussion, for instance, among right-wing bloggers about how this family is 'not really poor' and a great number of snide comments along the lines of 'ah, they can send their kid to private school but they need assistance getting health insurance' and speculation regarding their house and small business.
A lot of this has involved just plain lying, as TP points out:
Here are the facts that the right-wing distorted in order to attack young Graeme:
1) Graeme has a scholarship to a private school. The school costs $15K a year, but the family only pays $500 a year.
2) His sister Gemma attends another private school to help her with the brain injuries that occurred due to her accident. The school costs $23,000 a year, but the state pays the entire cost.
3) They bought their “lavish house” sixteen years ago for $55,000 at a time when the neighborhood was less than safe.
4) Last year, the Frosts made $45,000 combined. Over the past few years they have made no more than $50,000 combined.
5) The state of Maryland has found them eligible to participate in the CHIP program.
It is also noted there that:
Right wing bloggers have been harassing the Frosts, calling their home numerous times to get information about their private lives.
One of those apparent blogger-stalkers, it seems, is someone called Michelle Malkin, who has gone probing around the Frosts' property and who, at her blog, makes all kinds of unfounded speculations about them. I've never heard of her before but she's a nasty piece of work, and undoubtedly for this reason she seems to have become some kind of right-wing super blogger. And part-time cheerleader. Or something.
But if this is what passes for investigative journalism on the right, then I'm very disappointed.
Leave that family alone. What the fuck is wrong with you people!?
But in a revealing comment, Mark Steyn points out that--despite the enormous amount of almost psychotically obsessive energy he and his cohorts have used in trying to expose the sinister truth behind an ordinary lower-middle-class family who are having difficulty with paying the health bills--none of this really matters:
But one thing is clear by now: Whatever the truth about this boy's private school, his family home, his father's commercial property, etc, the Frosts are a very particular situation and do not illustrate any social generality - and certainly not one that makes the case for an expensive expansive all-but universal entitlement.A more basic point is made very robustly by Kathy Shaidle: Advanced western democracies have delivered the most prosperous societies in human history. There simply are no longer genuinely "poor" people in sufficient numbers. As Miss Shaidle points out, if you're poor today, it's almost always for behavioral reasons - behavior which the state chooses not to discourage but to reward. Nonetheless, progressive types persist in deluding themselves that there are vast masses of the "needy" out there that only the government can rescue.
Interesting: how does Steyn know that the Frosts don't 'illustrate any social generality'? And how can he say that, having determined that the truth about them doesn't matter? That seems logically impossible to me.
Moreover, pointing out that nobody in the West lives like a medieval peasant, while true, is...well, sort of bizarre.
There was no shortage of commentators in the Victorian era who said exactly the same thing about poverty as Steyn (i.e., not that it is often caused by personal failures or inadequacies--which any sane person knows--but that it has only that sort of cause), while at the same time there were millions of people who were living in a situation that most Republicans (maybe even Steyn) probably recognise as wretched. But in many ways, the poor of nineteenth-century Manchester were probably living better than many human beings who had gone before them. However, the value of that statement is completely lost on me. What is the timeless and unchanging definition of poverty Steyn would use?
More to the point: why is he making that point when what is under discussion here is not giving the Frosts some kind of free luxury car, but helping them to pay for affordable health care.
But I don't think Steyn is really interested in poverty. Not at all. In fact, I'm quite sure of it.
And here a further insight into this mind-set, from the 'robust' Ms. Shaidle whom Steyn cites so approvingly:
There is definitely something to appreciate here: witness the true voice of blinding anger that motivates a large segment of the right-wing without all that sweet vaporous talk about 'compassion'.
That's why I don't care about the poor. They're no more real than Bigfoot. Those we and these lefty Christians call "poor" are "poor" because they've made a series of stupid choices; spend all their (actually, my) money on lottery tickets, beer, tattoos and manicures; are suffering from undiagnosed but easily treated mental illnesses; had too many kids too young; smoked behind the gym while I spent recess in the library, etc etc etc.I grew up with them. They were jerks and losers.
Ah, the moment of clarity.
In all their bug-eyed fury, though, the point that she, Steyn and all the rest seem to miss in this particular discussion is that CHIP is (rather explicitly) not aimed at 'the poor'. Were the Frosts 'poor', they might be eligible for Medicaid.
Moreover, CHIP is aimed at the children of the families to which it would apply. (The act mentioned above would remove most adults from eligibility in those states that have decided to include them, targeting it more clearly at children.) I'd be interested in knowing how they can be blamed for their predicament. (Perhaps all that time spent enjoying recess.)
The political philosophy, if we can call it that, of Shaidle and many other like her seems to add up to this: 'I'm doing fine, so fuck you!'. It's a sentiment that nicely encapsulates the growing right-wing contempt, not only for the long-term (and maybe even multi-generational) poor, such as the legendary 'welfare queens' of yore, but also for any kind of failure whatsoever.
While it might be obvious that if you're irredeemably dysfunctional enough, you will likely end up poor, I'm not sure why it is necessary for right-wing pundits to drone on about this at such length, unless it's just to allow them to feel all good and superior about themselves by looking down on other people.
Liberals already know that not all the poor are noble.
It is, however, also possible to spend your recesses in the library, not take drugs, avoid teenage pregnancy, and work hard all your life and still end up, at some point, losing out or being blindsided by one of life's many nasty little surprises (illness, injury and unemployment most obviously among them).
As I've noted before, anyone, can point to instances of people who land in poverty through bad choices. Big fucking deal.
I've also known many people (and known many more people who've known people) who have ended up in difficult financial situations--too much debt, no health insurance, crap job, no education, whatever. Some of these were bad choices, some were bad luck. Most were some combination of those.
But even if someone is struggling to get by (even on a Western lower-middle-class level that puts them well above the quality of life in the stone age) due to 'bad choices', I don't see the point or value or morality in denying them--or their children--access to medical care.
The weird caricature of reality offered by Steyn and Shaidle is intriguing though: The right-wing used to just demonize the presumably idle poor; now it seems that they are offering a more big-tent version of hatred, taking aim at those who work but nevertheless are finding it difficult to make ends meet. They think that if you find yourself in such a difficult impasse and seek any variety of public assistance you are, by definition, a loser.
However, the notion that social problems are simply based upon 'behavioral reasons' is absurd. In an economic slowdown, for instance, unemployment and poverty go up: is that simply due to an increase in loserdom?
As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the numbers, for instance, of the uninsured in America have been growing steadily, and the fastest growing group are 'solidly middle-class people'. A mad outbreak of loseritis? A generation coming of age that is suffering the after-effects of smoking behind the gym rather than sitting in the library at recess? A sudden plague of irresponsibility striking the land?
Or maybe--just maybe--it's a sign that there is something wrong with the way health insurance is supplied and that an incremental expansion of government assistance in some cases might be in order.
Or consider the wide variation in the percentage of people without health insurance across America: in the Midwest it's about 11.4%, in the South about 19%. Are Southerners simply 66% more loserish?
Finally, the vehemence of the right-wing attacks is all the more bizarre, since, as John Cole points out, the Frost family appears to have all the characteristics most Republicans say American families should have:
If you look through this family’s dossier, it appears they are doing everything Republicans say they should be doing- hell, their story is almost what you would consider a checklist for good, red-blooded American Republican voters: they own their own business, they pay their taxes, they are still in a committed relationship and are raising their kids, they eschewed public education and are doing what they have to do to get them into Private schools, they are part of the American dream of home ownership that Republicans have been pointing to in the past two administrations as proof of the health of the economy, and so on.Or, as a commenter at Whiskey Fire eloquently put it:
In short, they are a white, lower-middle-class, committed family, who is doing EVERYTHING the GOP Kultur Kops would have you believe people should be doing. They aren’t gay. They aren’t divorced. They didn’t abort their children. They aren’t drug addicts or welfare queens. They are property owners, entrepeneurs, taxpayers, and hard-working Americans. I bet nine times out of ten in past elections, if you handed this resume to a pollster, they would think you were discussing the prototypical Republican voter. Hell, the only thing missing from this equation is membership to a church and an irrational fear of Muslims and you HAVE the prototypical Bush voter.
Apparently, the only thing the far-right can come up with in fighting this issue is to launch a scummy personal attack on a family and indulge in a lot of back-patting self-aggrandisement that seems to have resulted more from reading Atlas Shrugged than paying much attention to reality.
PZ Myers has also joined in, with a post that is particularly relevant to residents of Minnesota.
Bitch Ph.D. (I'm linking to the main site so you can track updates) has lots of constructive political-action type info for anyone who wants to assist in overturning this veto.