Kimble Forrister: Bentley doesn’t get it — Alabama’s governor misunderstands poverty
by Kimble Forrister
Special to The Star
Jan 19, 2014 | 2159 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What’s the picture in Gov. Robert Bentley’s mind when he thinks about poverty? His State of the State address this week left me wondering if he sees a couch potato in front of a TV. It’s a stereotype that demeans hundreds of thousands of diligent workers in Alabama.

Bentley’s speech posed a fundamental choice between “dependency” and jobs. But it’s a false choice.

Poverty in Alabama, for most families, is a story of people who already have jobs. It’s a story of many small businesses and even some giant corporations that limit workers to 29 hours a week to avoid paying benefits. It’s a story of young workers with low starting salaries, or unskilled workers who don’t make enough to pay their bills.

Though most of Alabama’s state “poverty dollars” go to children or senior citizens who can’t work, the next largest amount goes to workers who cannot survive on their paychecks alone. They are able to participate in the economy because their wages are supplemented by food assistance, child care and health coverage for their children.

What most low-wage workers don’t get is health insurance for themselves. Their children are eligible, but Alabama offers nothing for most able-bodied adult workers. A parent who makes less than $200 a month may qualify for Medicaid. No other state sets that income ceiling so low. Adults in a family of three living on more than $1,700 a month can go to healthcare.gov and buy affordable health insurance, thanks to federal tax credits for middle-income workers.

But for parents who make between about $200 and $1,700 a month, there’s nothing. That is, there’s nothing unless the state expands Medicaid eligibility to cover them. But Bentley says no; he says he wants to discourage dependency on government programs.

The governor needs to consider the 152,000 uninsured workers who would be eligible for coverage under an expanded Medicaid program, according to Census data. They are hard-working people whose jobs don’t pay enough for them to afford health insurance on their own. He is refusing billions of federal dollars that could protect them from health catastrophes – and provide preventive care in a “medical home” of their choice.

By ensuring preventive-care coverage for 152,000 Alabama workers, Bentley can make Alabama’s small business workforce more reliable and productive. He also can provide a huge, job-creating infusion of dollars into our state’s economy.

We shouldn’t use the word “dependency” to describe aid to children, seniors or those with disabilities. And we shouldn’t call it dependency when people are working their way up the wage ladder but — while they’re still on the bottom rungs — need help to meet their families’ basic needs.

Governor, it’s not a choice between creating jobs and expanding health coverage. Tens of thousands of uninsured low-income Alabamians already have jobs. What they need now is a family doctor.

Kimble Forrister is executive director of Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide citizens’ organization comprising 145 congregations and organizations that promote public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: kimble@alarise.org.
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