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Picking on Poor People

When Tug McGraw signed a big, fat baseball contract in the 1970s, a reporter asked him how he planned to spend it.

“Ninety percent of it I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey,” he said. “The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.”

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley took that hoary old joke for reality recently while seeking to justify giving a massive tax break to rich people.

Abolishing the estate tax, Grassley argued, “recognizes the people that are investing – as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Hmmm, has Chuck been reading my diary from the 1980s?

Contrary to what the Republican senator says, abolishing the tax also recognizes and rewards people who were fortunate enough to hit the birth lottery: that’s why the estate tax is sometimes called the “spoiled brat tax” – because it allows heirs to receive, tax-free, the estate of their parents.

At GOP rallies, promises to abolish the estate tax – which Republicans brilliantly labeled a “death tax” - elicit huge cheers.

So what if it annually affects only about 5,000 Americans – wealthy Americans – and many of the people cheering its demise have nothing more valuable to pass on to their heirs than a ’78 Ford Maverick that is missing a starter.

Of course, if those “Elvis” and “Gone With The Wind” commemorative plates – or my mint condition Z.Z. Hill albums - ever mature as the man on those TV ads promised, some of us may actually find ourselves breathing that rarefied air that only the wealthy breathe. We, too, may then have to worry about an estate tax.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to be demonized by politicians who fee it’s okay to dump on poor people.

Gays, minorities, fat people – they’re off-limits, at least in polite society.

If you’re poor, though, you’re fair game, because your impecunious state is obviously the result of some character flaw within you.

I asked the Rev. William Barber, leader of the national Poor People’s Campaign, what he thought of Sen. Grassley’s comments.

“Sen. Grassley is pushing an old extremist line that says poor people are immoral, poor people are lazy,” the Rev. Barber said. “The truth is, systemic poverty is immoral. The majority of poor people are ‘working poor’ or disabled. They’re white, and they’re not carousing. They’re surviving.”

It’s because of ideas such as Grassley’s, Barber said, “that we must have a poor people’s campaign and a national call for a moral revival.”

Grassely is not the first politician to make hay from attacking poor people. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan got a lot of mileage demonizing the mythical welfare queen that he claimed he saw using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks while her Cadillac was parked outside?

Or how about the despicably contemptuous comments of Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who said earlier this year “Hell, people use food stamps to buy marijuana that is illegal or cocaine or whatever the hell else these people use to get high”?

Oy. I vowed after hearing that to never set foot inside Home Depot until he apologized: if he isn’t apologizin’, I’m not patronizin’.

Now, if only I had a reason to take a trip to Iowa – so I could cancel it.





Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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