Oklahoma and Defense of Big Government

The GOP's notion of "self-reliance" won't hold up after disaster hits one of the nation's poorest states.

(The Root) — The tornado that devastated Oklahoma this week requires significant government aid to support recovery. This presents a unique problem for the Republican Party writ large — both in the state and in Washington, D.C. — as requests for aid, and approval thereof, undercut its meme of “self-reliance” and the dangers of “big government.”

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a regular critic of President Obama, is on record for having voted against the Hurricane Sandy relief bill last year, calling it a “slush fund.” Inhofe is now singing a different tune — claiming that Oklahoma relief is necessary. The fatal cognitive flaw in his analysis was best summed up by Salon’s Joan Walsh, who wrote, “Just as modern conservatism helped create categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, we now apparently have ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ disasters.”

Inhofe isn’t alone in his hypocrisy. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn said — fewer than 24 hours after the tornado that injured hundreds, left thousands homeless and killed at least 24 people, including children — that he would only support aid if it was “offset” by budget cuts. To be fair, Coburn is ideologically consistent, since he made similar arguments during Sandy, but he’s disingenuous for acting as though government budgets haven’t already experienced deep cuts.

Sequestration has forced massive spending cuts once thought unimaginable and has contributed to layoffs and furloughs of thousands of government workers. Offsets of the kind Coburn appears to be suggesting would have to come from things like food stamps, Medicaid or Head Start — programs aimed at helping the poor and needy children.

It is worth noting that both Inhofe and Coburn oppose raising tax revenue from the wealthy or corporations as a way to “offset” disaster aid. This is a curious position, given that Oklahoma has consistently remained one of the 10 poorest states for the past decade. Yet it is also a predictably “red” state — delivering seats to Republicans at both the state and federal levels.

Perhaps Oklahomans should begin rethinking their choice of representatives.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a vocal Tea Party sympathizer, recently rejected Medicaid expansion and federal funds to set up a state health care exchange in compliance with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Fallin cited overwhelming opposition from constituents and Tea Party groups.

But what she failed to address was the fact that Oklahoma suffers from a 16.2 percent poverty (pdf) rate — well above the national average of 13.8 percent. The poverty rate for children is worse, at 22 percent. At least a third of the state’s population — 1.3 million people — relies on food stamps, Medicaid or both, according to a 2011 report by Tulsa World.

Between 2002 and 2010, there was a 62 percent increase in the number of Oklahomans reliant on food stamps — and a 43 percent increase in Medicaid enrollment. But the recession of 2007 and 2008 wasn’t solely to blame. In fact, Oklahoma is one of the poorest states with the lowest unemployment rate — 6.2 percent, well below the national average. In other words, Oklahomans are the epitome of America’s working poor.