By Rick Burnette
Exodus 5:1-13 (NIV)
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.'”
Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”
Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.”
But the king of Egypt said, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!”
Then Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.”
That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people:
“You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw.
But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, `Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’
Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”
Then the slave drivers and the foremen went out and said to the people, “This is what Pharaoh says: `I will not give you any more straw.
Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.'”
So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw.
The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.”
As of June 1, 2023, our nation and the world, were once again subjected to a perennial debt ceiling ordeal. A legislative framework had been hammered out by Democratic and Republican representatives and the White House, but a dysfunctional Republican congressional majority threatened not to approve a debt limit package by June 5 which would have caused unparalleled economic turmoil as the result.
The worst economic calamity was averted when the legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Biden. The entire world heaved a temporary sigh of relief as fragile, post-Covid economies were spared the worst, at least for now. Unfortunately, any immediate debt limit deal will only kick the can down the road as the new ceiling will expire in two years, immediately following the 2024 presidential election.
Obviously, legislative deals result in winners and losers. Who typically wins? Corporations win as they will face no additional taxes and tax avoidance loopholes will remain unchecked. The military establishment comes out unscathed as usual. The fossil fuel industry will continue to benefit from American taxpayers’ largesse through continued subsidies and tax write-offs, and large farm corporations will continue to receive the profitable benefits of farm subsidies.
Who loses? The poor, of course. They will be expected to gather even more stubble while continuing to piece together meager livelihoods.
The increased work requirements for certain adults receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance will add to that stress and deprivation. Currently, able-bodied adults (without children) between 18 and 49 may access SNAP for only three months out of every three years unless they are employed at least 20 hours a week or meet other criteria.
Considering the GOP push for additional work requirements, Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne Jr., asserts that work requirements “don’t get anyone a job and mostly create bureaucratic obstacles for working people entitled to benefits” (Washington Post, May 28, 2023).
Along the same vein, a May 17, 2023, New York Times opinion piece by David Firestone pointed out that following Arkansas’ becoming the first state to impose very similar work requirements on Medicaid recipients in 2018, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 13 percent of Medicaid recipients in Arkansas lost their health coverage — about 17,000 people — with no significant change in employment. Fortunately, a federal judge ended the experiment in 2019.
A May 24, 2023, NBC News article (“Inside the Florida group pushing to slash food stamp rolls nationwide,” by J.J. McCorvey) reports that among families that participated in SNAP in 2021, almost 80 percent already had at least one working family member; yet the drive to impose additional work requirements on poor people continues.
Such “reforms” aren’t novel. They are a regular feature every five years or so, when a new farm bill is introduced, with fiscal hawks consistently arguing for reduced food aid and/or more work requirements.
Meanwhile, what are affluent welfare recipients expected to give up?
A May 4, 2023, Washington Post editorial points out that a disproportionate share of benefits “flows to relatively high-income farmers who, as a group, are better off than the average American household.” The same piece states that the House Republicans’ proposal to raise the debt limit includes no cut to farm subsidies, even while tightening eligibility for SNAP at a savings of $11 billion over 10 years. The editorialists add that “no decent fiscal strategy would demand this sacrifice from the poor while asking nothing of the myriad special interests that feed off the farm bill’s wasteful largesse.”
Also in his May 28 article, E.J. Dionne, states that with such legislation, the GOP is sending a signal about who is “worthy” of public help, “with racial stereotypes lurking in the background.”
So, there’s commonality between the logic of Pharoah and our politicians regarding the poor. Basically, “they are lazy.”
Our race-baiting establishment still easily fires up its white base with allegations of laziness and unworthiness; dog whistles meaning foreign, non-white, and those descended from America’s enslaved. They simply aren’t worthy of public assistance. Farm workers are needed to help put food in the supply chain for the corporate good, but those same workers and their families are undeserving of America’s help.
The impact of such policies, when put into action, is evident in Immokalee, Florida. Immokalee is both a farm town and food desert. I live nearby with my wife, Ellen, and we are engaged in a food security ministry for those workers and their families, and we see their struggles daily. SNAP and other federal food assistance isn’t available to the large population of undocumented residents who harvest America’s food. Never mind our nation’s broken immigration system, these hardworking folks are simply unworthy of receiving federal assistance. So, let them find their own straw.
Eventually, such judgement also applies to “lazy” whites and other “misfits” who fail to contribute to corporate society. Simultaneously, any discussion of systemic racism and inequities related to education, health care and other social resources is taboo, if not illegal.
Where does the Church fit within this drawn-out issue? Obviously, there’s nothing new here. We’ve had decades to absorb these arguments and decipher the dog whistles.
Further into Exodus, chapter 5, the compliant Israelite overseers realize they’re in trouble when the enslaved are unable to meet the brick quota despite the cruel expectation that they would supply their own straw in addition to making the same number of bricks. Out of fear and frustration, they blame Moses and Aaron, threatening,
“May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
By the time this article is shared, the ramifications of the recent debt ceiling drama will have begun to be felt.
Meanwhile, what is our role? Are we merely scared, compliant overseers, cowed by unjust corporations and bullying politicians? Or, like Moses and Aaron, do we dare take the risk of justice and faith to alleviate the burdens of the working poor?
— Rick Burnette, along with his wife, Ellen, have been working in communities of dispossessed, disenfranchised people for decades, first in Thailand among hill tribes, and now in Immokalee among seasonal farm workers and their families.