On Thursday night’s edition of Current TV’s The Young Turks, host Cenk Uygur lit into Fox News contributor John Stossel over a Fox and Friends segment in which he bragged about suckering people into giving him money by pretending to be a panhandler. While Cenk’s righteous anger is perfectly justified, Stossel’s sick display is just a scratch on the surface of how the Fox News (opinion programming!)-led conservative media hurt the most desperate Americans.
Cenk opened the segment by introducing a clip of Stossel’s Fox And Friends appearance, asking viewers to “see what he learned” from his hours of fake homelessness, spurred on by the fact that Stossel “heard” that some panhandlers make as much as $80,000 a year (more on that later). In the clip, Stossel reveals that he collected money at a rate of about $24,000 a year (for several hours), and concludes that this is evidence that you shouldn’t give money to homeless people on the street.
“Yeah,” Cenk said, “you shouldn’t give money to street people because I did an experiment where I sat on my ass, and some people were decent enough to think that I wasn’t messing with them, and thought I really needed help, and they gave me money. You see how that proves you shouldn’t give money to the poor?”
Cenk acknowledged that some homeless people have alcohol or substance abuse problems, but asked “does that mean you should condemn all of them?”
“And this is the channel,” he continued, “that they’re in favor of Christian values. Is that what Jesus Christ would’ve done? A segment about how you shouldn’t help the poor or the homeless?”
“It’s not the Christian thing to do, to make fun of them,” Cenk concluded, “so stop pretending that you care about Christian values at all.”
You do hear wacky stories from time to time about wealthy panhandlers (along with the hazards of Pop Rock and Coca-Cola abuse), but Stossel’s figure was so specific, it sounded like it must have come from somewhere. As it turns out, there is a 2010 entry on the Savings Advice blog in which the author interviews a panhandler who claims he makes $55,000 in a good year, which he says is “probably close to the equivalent of an $80,000 per year job.”
That blogger paid the man five dollars to tell her his story, none of which she checked, and all of which sounds like complete bullshit. The guy brags to her about not paying any taxes, yet lays out some kind of crazy fake panhandler’s honor code. She was suckered as badly as Stossel’s marks.
The immediate impact of Stossel’s gimmick is, I suppose, that people will hesitate to give homeless people money in the street (although I suspect Stossel’s target audience doesn’t have that strong an urge to begin with), and there’s an argument to be made (which Stossel conspicuously doesn’t make) that there are better ways to help.
The right has engaged in this war on the poor for as long as I can remember, from Ronald Reagan‘s “welfare queens” and “young bucks” on (Stossel, to his extremely limited credit, leaves out the race-baiting this time), and this isn’t Fox’s first foray into this territory, which might explain why, if you start to Google “Fox News Poor,” the top suggestion is “Fox News Poor People Have Refrigerators.”
Stossel should probably pay a royalty to The Daily Caller‘s Matt Boyle, who pioneered the art of warning people against the danger of privileged white assholes gaming the system that’s supposed to help poor people. The natural reaction is that we should eradicate privileged white asshole fake reporters, but unfortunately, there continues to be an audience for this garbage, and that audience continues to support politicians who are dedicated to dismantling the already-tattered safety net that’s supposed to protect the poor.
That’s where the real harm is. During my forst trip to Washington, DC, I spent some time with homeless people, and discovered that they’re not all swordfish-eating, cellphone-gabbing layabouts getting fat on their rich panhandling proceeds and food stamp “loot.”
In fact, one of the people I met was Tanonnah Tyson, a Gulf War veteran who works a full time, 40 hour per week job, yet still has to live in a homeless shelter. She told me that about twenty of the 94 women at her shelter had jobs, but couldn’t afford to get out of the shelter. Having a job wasn’t a complete waste, however. Tanonnah told me that the shelter is open 7pm to 7am, and that everyone had to leave at 7am carrying all of their belongings. She, and the 20 or so other women who have jobs, don’t have to do this. That’s the “privilege” a hard day’s work earns them.
That’s not right, and people like John Stossel and Matt Boyle, and the right-wing media who promote them, are doing everything they can to make it worse, to give people an excuse not to care.
Here’s the clip, from The Young Turks:
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