(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.
And poverty is an equal-opportunity offender, with 63 percent of all those poverty-stricken being white, according to 2009 census data, while more than 30 percent of Oklahoma's African Americans live in poverty, as well as 29 percent of Hispanics and 22 percent of Native Americans. Partisan politics, conservative dogma and a nationwide Republican agenda are partly responsible.
Just recently, Gov. Fallin signed off on a bill that would severely limit food benefits to people out of work — keeping pace with the Republican Party's ideological stance. State employees have endured significant cuts under her tenure, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. And Fallin, who has been a denier of climate change and global warming, now finds her state being declared a disaster zone.
In fact, the loss of life would have been much worse if not for the 16-minute warning received from scientists at the National Weather Service. But in 2007, Fallin — then a U.S. congresswoman — laughed off the effects of greenhouse gases. And in early 2011 she attacked the Environmental Protection Agency for attempting to enforce clean-air and clean-water restrictions on the state's oil and gas industries.
There is a cognitive dissonance at the heart of GOP political ideology — denying climate change in the face of superstorms and record tornadoes, denying aid to the poor in the face of crippling unemployment and poverty, championing the tax-exempt status of the wealthy and their political allies, while asking the most vulnerable to "pay their fair share."
The tensions between reason and the unreasonable were most apparent during the 2012 election cycle, when New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie praised President Obama's handling of the federal response to Superstorm Sandy — much to the ire of GOP critics. Christie answered the criticism by explaining that President Obama had "kept every promise that he made," and "what people expect from people they elect is to do their jobs."
But the GOP isn't alone in its dangerous delusions. It is aided by the very people who vote for the party — many of whom are poor, particularly rural whites in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Oklahoma. These voters live under constant threat from hurricanes and tornadoes but support candidates who seem to care more about achieving political ends than sound policy solutions, convinced, as they are, by Republican propaganda that somehow bigger government doesn't help them but instead assists the black, brown and "undeserving" poor.
Hopefully the sad events surrounding the Oklahoma tornado tragedy can help change that.
Thousands have lost homes. Entire schools and hospitals have been flattened. Early estimates place damage costs at $2 billion. And in the face of such destruction, no one can deny that the government must serve its people.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.