Speaking to a crowd at Mars Hill College last week, North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) extolled the virtues of drug testing low-income people who need welfare benefits, declaring that they need to be “conquer[ed]” because “the money’s not getting to the right people.” “You go in and you see a woman in a wheelchair — she’s from here, she’s from Asheville — who’s on the brink of losing her benefits, and you know that Health and Human Services is sending checks to a woman who has chosen to have three or four kids out of wedlock,” he said. Aghast at such decisions, he declared that government must “find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance”:
TILLIS: At some point, we’ll say, ‘First kid, we’ll give you a pass. Second, third or fourth kid, you’re on your own. But what we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on [public] assistance. We have to show respect that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition, that needs help, and we should help.
And we need those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say at some point you’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you. [...] One of the reasons why I may never run for another elected out of office because some of these things might get be railroaded out of town. But in 2013, I honestly believe we have to do this.
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Backlash to his callous attitude about who is more worthy of help was swift. “By trying to humiliate our most underprivileged and poverty-stricken citizens, it’s clear that Thom Tillis is nothing more than a schoolyard bully,” said the state Democratic Chairman David Parker. “He should be ashamed of himself.” As Center for American Progress’s Half in Ten project notes, North Carolina faces an above-average 17.5 percent poverty rate with 27.5 percent of households struggling with hunger. More than 1.5 million North Carolinians live without health insurance.
The single-mother with three kids that he demonized can only earn only $8,172 a year or less to qualify for federal cash assistance. In 2011, over 37,000 children and around 23,000 families receive the much-needed funds. 1.6 million North Carolinians received food stamp benefits in August alone. To Tillis, the state must start determining which of these struggling families are morally worth the aid.
Tillis said yesterday that perhaps he made a “poor choice of words” when he suggested dividing and conquering his constituents. However, he maintains that his broader point to “place a priority” on certain people stands. He even suggested drug-testing the more than 450,000 unemployed before they receive unemployment benefits. “All of this is about running [government] more efficiently and getting money to people most deserving,” he said.