Why Obamacare Is Good for Poor Whites

Lack of affordable health care affects impoverished whites more than blacks -- and most of them live in red states.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — The Republican Party has done a masterful job distorting the facts about Obamacare. From its inception to the official launch, members of the GOP and conservative talking heads have twisted a tale of lies about the Affordable Care Act with the clear aim to undermine both the policy and the president.

The winners in this political game remain unclear, but the losers are undeniable, as millions of impoverished Americans and the working poor do not have and cannot afford health insurance coverage. This is especially the case in the 26 states that opted out of the Medicaid expansion, home to about half of the country’s population and 60 percent of the country’s uninsured working poor.

“The irony is that these states that are rejecting Medicaid expansion — many of them Southern — are the very places where the concentration of poverty and lack of health insurance are the most acute,” Dr. H. Jack Geiger, a founder of the community health center model, told the New York Times. “It is their populations that have the highest burden of illness and costs to the entire health care system.”

The lack of and need for health care affects impoverished white Americans and the working poor by a far wider margin than any other ethnic group, according to U.S. Census data. And in traditionally “red states” that have been safe Republican voting blocs, the extent of poverty and lack of health care is alarmingly high.

That seems lost on a Republican Party that needs those voters, yet vehemently opposes the safety-net programs that could benefit them. This conservative opposition to progressive programs is not new; the fight against universal health care coverage is only the latest iteration. But the strategy of aligning race to poverty — which has been a cruel tool of the GOP for more than a century — is now outdated.

Poverty is color-blind.

Nancy Folbre, professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts, in a blog posting on the New York Times website, says that racial attitudes have shaped the way Obamacare has been perceived and opposed. “Respondents predisposed to believe that a black president will try to benefit blacks more than whites are likely to view the Affordable Care Act through a racial lens,” Folbre writes, “which helps explain the results of a recent Pew survey showing that almost 91 percent of blacks currently approve of the law, compared with 29 percent of whites.”

Folbre argues that the Republican Party has exploited old racial anxieties by framing “Obamacare” as a social welfare exercise aimed at benefiting poor blacks and other minorities. But as President Obama himself explained in a recent interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, more whites will benefit from Obamacare than any other ethnic group.

The latest census data confirms that the predominant face of the poor is white. More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, and account for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute — nearly double the number of poor blacks. Low-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs as well as small rural towns, where they make up more than 60 percent of the poor, the Associated Press reports.