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Joni Ernst: Poor People Aren't Entitled to Food, Clothing, or Health Care

David Greedy/Getty Images

The unearthed recording of Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst decrying the fact that Americans are insufficiently “self-sufficient” has invited comparisons to the hidden camera footage of Mitt Romney writing off 47 percent of the electorate, and commentary on the candor with which she lumps government health insurance subsidies (which she, too, enjoys as a state employee) together with welfare spending.

But the most revealing thing about the comments is how breezily she renders contradictory judgments about the concept of dependency. Because it is apparently not dependency, but rather poverty, that she finds so abhorrent.

What we have to do a better job of is educating not only Iowans, but the American people that they can be self-sufficient. They don’t have to rely on the government to be the do-all, end-all for everything they need and desire, and that’s what we have fostered, is really a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them. It’s going to take a lot of education to get people out of that. It’s going to be very painful and we know that. So do we have the intestinal fortitude to do that?…

We’re looking at Obamacare right now. Once we start with those benefits in January, how are we going to get people off of those? It’s exponentially harder to remove people once they’ve already been on those programs…we rely on government for absolutely everything. And in the years since I was a small girl up until now into my adulthood with children of my own, we have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do. They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it. But we have gotten away from that. Now we’re at a point where the government will just give away anything.”

In paragraph one we learn that the main evil of big government is that it generates dependency, which is bad.

In paragraph two, we learn that once upon a time, poor people were dependent on their families and churches for food and clothing, which is good.

The right likes to frame anti-poverty programs as programs that foster dependency, because dependency is a concept that’s easier to lambaste than the condition of poverty. But if dependency were actually a problem unto itself, conservatives wouldn’t be out there promoting private-sector alternatives to government anti-poverty spending. Shifting the sources of dependency doesn't end dependency.

Most of those conservatives, though, don’t go around describing charitable giving as a source of dependency, because it undermines the framing they use to attack big government. Ernst screwed that part up, leaving us to infer that something else really bothers her about government programs that provide poor people with guaranteed access to food, clothing and health care. Specifically, that those programs provide poor people with guaranteed access to food, clothing and health care.