James O’Keefe’s Latest Target: Medicaid, and Your Social Safety Net

Estimates show that one in every six people in America receive some form of government assistance. Conservatives like O'Keefe still want to shame them.

By Jamilah King Jul 20, 2011

Conservative activist James O’Keefe is back to his dirty tricks again. This time the 27-year-old, whose claims to fame include attacks against ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, took aim at Medicaid, the nation’s low income health program. As Republicans on Capitol Hill threaten to tank the country’s economy if Democrats don’t give in to severe cuts to programs like Medicaid, O’Keefe’s Project Veritas sends a man dressed in a Irish kilt to a South Carolina public assistance office claiming he’s a member of the controversial Irish Republican Army and then releases video of a government employee acting as an alleged "terrorist sympathizer."

The so-called "sting" had the man in a kilt walk into a Charleston, South Carolina office and ask for help for 25 fellow hospitalized Irishmen who need Medicaid. Ryan J. Reilly at Talking Points Memo sums up what happened next:

A government employee follows the rules and explains the process for filling out a Medicaid paperwork and the qualifications they’d need to meet. She informs them that a federal law intended to protect patient privacy requires her not to divulge any information he’s told her.

Then, keeping in line with O’Keefe’s M.O., Project Veritas released a deceptively edited version of the video that made the woman look like she’s done wrong.

Putting aside for a moment O’Keefe’s sensationalism, Republicans have directed animus toward  safety net programs like Medicaid and Social Security since their inception. That criticism has seems to have peaked this year with the Republican-led House and with Paul Ryan’s awful budget proposal earlier this year. The irony, of course, is that so many people have benefited from government aid programs — regardless of whether or not they’re willing to admit it.

Norma Willis Aronowitz over at GOOD pointed to a recently published Cornell University paper showing that roughly half of the people who receive government aid don’t know, or want to acknowledge it. That includes about half of people getting federal student loans, 40 percent of Medicare recipients, and 25 percent of people on welfare. In total, an estimated one in six people in America are recipients of some kind of anti-poverty program.

Antics like the ones pulled by O’Keefe do nothing more than humiliate people into railing against programs that actually help them. As Aronowitz writes, "Shame about government help is ingrained into our culture, and so is the narrative of the ‘culture of dependence.’"

Seth Freed Wessler wrote for Colorlines.com that the economic downturn has left many low-income mothers who’ve dealt with cutbacks in welfare "teetering one small step away from a tumble to homelessness and despair."