Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said Saturday he could have chosen his words more carefully when he compared people who take public assistance to stray animals Friday.
But Bauer, in an interview with The State Saturday, said a furor over his comments doesn't change this fact: South Carolina needs to have an honest conversation about the cycle of government dependency among its poorest residents.
Bauer, a two-term Republican who is running for governor, said there are parents who are dependent upon the government for food and shelter, but who are unwilling to engage in their children's education. This, he said, robs children of a chance to break out of poverty.
And as a candidate for governor, Bauer said, now is the time to start talking about something that others are unwilling to tackle. Bauer said he wants to lead that conversation.
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"Why shouldn't you have to do something?" Bauer asked of people receiving food stamps, free school lunches and public housing. "In government, we are too often giving a handout instead of a hand up."
Friday, Bauer said giving food to needy people means encouraging dependence. It also gives the recipients a license to have children who will also be dependent on public aid, he said.
"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals," Bauer told a Greenville-area crowd. "You know why? Because they breed.
"You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."
Those comments caused Democratic candidates running for governor and some lawmakers to question Bauer's faith, compassion and timing.
The state is enduring the nation's worst-ever recession. Bauer's comments came on the same day South Carolina reported its jobless rate is now 12.6 percent. State agencies are reporting more South Carolinians are tapping public assistance, as job creation is scant and job loss has remained robust.
"It amazes me how some Republican politicians claim a monopoly on Christianity and then go out and say and do some of the most un-Christian things imaginable," said Charleston attorney Mullins McLeod, who participated in a candidates forum in Columbia along with Bauer Saturday. "... Bauer's comments are despicable and the total opposite of the Christian values Bauer espouses."
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said if there is anyone not taking responsibility, it's Bauer and his fellow Republicans. Sheheen, who is running for governor, noted the GOP has been in control while economic conditions in South Carolina have deteriorated and left more than 600,000 citizens jobless.
"The increase of people in our state who need jobs, food and shelter is a direct result of the failed policies of those who've controlled our state government for the past eight years," said Sheheen. "I am disgusted by these comments. They show an unbelievable lack of compassion toward the unemployed workers in our state who are hurting during these hard times."
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said it's ironic that Bauer's comments appeared in The Greenville News next to an article about the state's jobless rate setting a new record.
In that article, Martin said, there was a jobless worker who talked about the indignity of a willing and able worker having to ask for food stamps. "People are hurting," Martin said.
State Education Superintendent Jim Rex, a Democrat who is also running for governor, said Bauer should apologize.
"If the intent of Lieutenant Governor Bauer's remarks was to blame children, who are not responsible for their own predicaments, or to blame adults, who want to work but cannot find jobs, it is regrettable," Rex said. "It is reprehensible that a statewide elected official would compare his fellow citizens to stray animals. He should apologize."
Bauer said he doesn't need to apologize. His comments, Bauer said, are not about hardships associated with the economy, but a culture of dependence that is there during good economic times.
He also said he wasn't advocating the abolition of the federal school-lunch program or any other government aid. Bauer said he wants the state to rethink how those programs are administered.
"This is out of love and compassion," Bauer said. "If I have to take a hit, then fine. ... I will take short-term pain for long-term gain."
Bauer, 40, said the criticism of him is political opportunism. He said there is probably no one in South Carolina politics who identifies more with the plight of the poorest South Carolinians or who spends more time helping the needy.
Bauer said he's been poor, unlike most S.C. politicians. Bauer is a child of divorce. As a result, he and his sister qualified for reduced-price lunches in the Irmo school system, something that was obvious to other kids because of the different color lunch ticket he was given.
Bauer said he was "mortified" by the idea of presenting the reduced-price lunch ticket. "Everyone knew," he said.
That's part of the reason, Bauer said, that he has raised enough money to give away nearly 10,000 pairs of shoes last year and 6,000 blankets.
Bauer on Saturday had returned from a charity drive to aid victims of the Haiti earthquake. He says his efforts will send three truckloads of supplies to victims there.
"I haven't done any of this for publicity," Bauer said. "I don't know if the folks who are criticizing me have put in the work I have in helping people.
"I have spent many USC football Saturdays outside the stadium hustling (for donations). It all goes to my foundation. Where is the media coverage of that?"
Bauer said there is also little media coverage of the frustrated public school system that wants parents across the spectrum to get more involved with their children's education.
Bauer says he frequently hears from teachers. There was a time when he was one. Bauer worked as a substitute teacher for four years while he was also in the state Senate. He says he did so because he wanted to know firsthand about what works in schools and what doesn't work.
The experience, Bauer said, raised as many questions as it provided answers. That's why, he said, the state needs to have what he says is a necessary but potentially painful discussion. If nobody else is willing to talk about it, then he is, Bauer said.
"I'm looking for ideas," Bauer said.