The Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Denise Thomas-Brown canvasses a Richmond apartment complex distributing “Know Your Rights” educational materials to tenants as part of the organization’s housing advocacy and outreach efforts. (VPLC)
By Valerie L’Herrou and Cassie Edner
Odds are, by now you’ve heard about that song from a country singer in Farmville, Virginia, who performs under the stage name Oliver Anthony.
As he belts “Rich Men North of Richmond,” Mr. Anthony raises an important issue that we here at VPLC care about and work hard to change: working class and lower-income people work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet in a country (and a state!) that boasts a lot of wealth.
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day. Overtime hours for bullsh-t pay.” And later, “It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to, for people like me and people like you. Wish I could just wake up and it not be true.”
Mr. Anthony, we wish the same! But we are not sleeping on it. We’re working hard to make positive change here in Virginia so that people can raise up their families without worrying about where their next meal comes from. (If you would like to learn more, here are some examples of our recent work on unemployment insurance and the Virginia Employment Commission, SNAP and family nutrition, Medicaid and affordable healthcare, utility fairness, the child tax credit, earned income tax credits, income protections, predatory lending, as well as evictions and the current housing crisis, and our work to help mobile home owners keep their homes.)
One reason people feel their wages are unfairly taxed is that those in higher income brackets are not taxed proportionally or have ways to shield their money from taxation. Over the last several decades the inequalities between the top 5% and the middle class have only increased, with the top earners outpacing the earnings of the lower and middle classes.
“Cause your dollar ain’t sh-t and it’s taxed to no end. ‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond.”
One thing that could help workers keep more money in their pockets would be to reinstate the expanded and inclusive child tax credits. The monthly child tax credit was implemented for six months in 2021, reducing childhood poverty by about 30%. In December 2021 alone, 3.7 million children were kept out of poverty due to the child tax credit. Many families indicated that the extra money helped them pay for the costs of working and allowed them to work more. Congress failed to act to make the changes to the child tax credit permanent. Instead, some members of Congress introduced bills to provide tax cuts to the wealthiest of Americans, furthering the gap between the wealthy and middle and lower classes. Mr. Anthony’s song illustrates an all-too-common misconception: that poor people take resources away from working-class people.
“Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat. And the obese milkin’ welfare.” And “Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.”
We agree, it is not OK for people to go hungry. It is not ok that our elders are supposed to survive on $23 a month in SNAP benefits.
But Mr. Anthony: do you begrudge a poor kid having a cookie now and again? The amount of support that SNAP provides to families is so low — on average less than $6 per person per day — families must try to stretch their SNAP assistance by buying the cheapest food they can afford. We’ve had clients with heart disease who can only afford prepackaged foods high in sodium. You may think “this could never be me.” But more than half of all Americans will experience at least one year of poverty in their lifetimes. No matter what a person’s circumstances may be, we all deserve the dignity of being able to make our own choices about the food we put on the table for our families.
And, Mr. Anthony: you have fallen for that false narrative that people on public benefits such as SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (welfare) don’t work. Over 84% of SNAP households are working and there are strict time limits for individuals who do not work and do not meet an exemption. Those individuals can only receive SNAP benefits for three months out of a 36-month period. The requirements for TANF are even stricter: people must work or be in school or job training. Even those who are working cannot receive TANF benefits for more than two years at a time (or five years in their lifetime). These families have their personal lives put under a magnifying glass just so their children don’t go hungry.
Your song, Mr. Anthony, has successfully raised to the forefront something a lot of people have been feeling for a long time. VPLC has spent more than forty years working to make improvements in people’s lives and to reduce the influence of the millionaires and billionaires whose money talks — giving them the power to sway our elected officials in Washington AND Richmond.
Mr. Anthony, we would love to have you visit us here in Richmond — not too far from Farmville! – and tell you about the people we have helped, what we’re working on, and where we need to go so “people like me and people like you” will have the dignity, respect and ability to raise their families in a better world.
Valerie L’Herrou is Deputy Director of the Center for Family Advocacy at VPLC and a family & child welfare attorney. Cassie Edner is Director of Virginia Hunger Solutions at VPLC and a public benefits attorney.
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