The culture war next time.

Thomas Edsall has some interesting thoughts about the Kulturkampf and the jobs crisis–go read.  I don’t agree with everything he writes–for example, I’m sure that he’s wrong to declare victory on behalf of the Left in the culture war, because the beauty of the Kulturkampfen mentality is that there’s always another front to advance to when forced to retreat on other fronts!  But this part of his argument caught my eye:

On a more sobering note for Democrats, a slight majority (51 percent) of voters agreed with the statement “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” compared to 43 percent saying “Government should do more to solve problems.” This despite the fact that, as The New York Times reported in a Feb. 11, 2012 story, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It”:

The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007.

The story points out that many people

say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.

And yet, of course, no Americans are refusing to cash unemployment or Social Security checks!  Some of them are voting for pols like Mitt Romney and Ayn Ryan, perhaps to assuage their guilt and feelings of failure.  (Like all of those “pro-life” women who get their safe, legal abortions and then go back to voting “pro-life.”)  It is interesting to consider the possibility that the most passionate foes of the welfare state are its own beneficiaries, not the 1%.

This may point to a truism about human nature and charity that runs deep in the American character.  In particular, it reminded me in particular of one of the reflections in Benjamin Rush’s (1746-1814) Travels Through Life on his (at that point) thirty years in private medical practice in Revolution-era Philadelphia:

I have found the least gratitude from those families in which I had performed the greatest services.  The slightest act of inattention has often cancelled the obligations created by years of attention and even friendship.  Many families whom I attended in low and obscure situations for nothing, or for very small compensations, left me when they got up in the world.  They could not bear to be reminded by my presence of their former poverty or humble employments, (107.)*

Rush was kind of a crank by the time he wrote this (ca. 1800), and eager to grind some axes over what he experienced as his rejection by the majority of the Philadelphia medical community (and indeed, the sometimes vicious public attacks on him)  over differences as to the origins and necessary public health measures over the Yellow Fever epidemics of 1792 and 1793.  Nevertheless, I’m sure he’s right that people may have abandoned him after they benefited from his generosity, because recognizing that generosity would require a recognition of the fact that they were once in need.

Americans can be so generous when presented with a crisis.  Why can’t they be generous with themselves, and therefore with others in need of temporary assistance in tough times?

*Source:  The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, His “Travels through Life” together with his Commonplace Book for 1789-1813, ed. George W. Corner (Philadelphia:  The American Philosophical Society and Princeton University Press, 1948)

22 thoughts on “The culture war next time.

  1. I think some of us don’t recognize the government benefits AS benefits, even. We just think they’re our rights, or something. I’m thinking of mortgage interest deductions, no taxes on medical insurance benefits and such. Oddly, I think some of us become aware of them as benefits when we realize that LGBTQ folks don’t get the same benefits; in my state, for example, LGBTQ folks may be able to cover a partner with health insurance, but we’ll have to pay taxes on the benefit as income.

    And it’s interesting that a lot of the “loopholes” the Republicans say they want to address in taxes seem likely to remove or restrict some of those benefits, isn’t it?


  2. I don’t think this attitude is unique to US culture – we certainly see many of the same attitudes in this country, which has proudly been a ‘welfare state’ since the early 1900s. I wonder how much of it is a more general hangover from Victorian welfarism/ charity, where you helped the poor but the poor were still expected to be ashamed of it, because ultimately their poverty was a result of their own moral failings. The same thing goes also as regards to middle class beneficiaries being the most viscious towards the ‘dole bludgers’ while conveniently forgetting all the ways they, too, benefit from government ‘handouts’ (childcare subsidies, family support tax breaks, universal superannuation etc. etc.).


  3. When you see a line of fancy cars crawling along on an Interstate or a turnpike behind a government plow truck in a blinding snowstorm, that’s a pretty good metaphor for this doubled mentality about who benefits and from what. Complicated, it is true, by the outrageous tendency of people driving in huge Suburbans and other SUVs who wheel out from behind the plow line, stick it in the passing lane, and rocket off into the whiteout. (Confident, no doubt, that they can always sue the Turnpike Commission).


  4. Benjamin Rush’s observations are true. After a day of dealing with the ingratitude of somebody I went out of my way to help navigate in a messed up healthcare system, I can attest to that. This happens about once a week. You would think I would have learnt by now, to do the bare minimum.I am a primary care physician.


  5. Edsall’s argument is that the new Democratic coalition consists of multiplicity of ideas, needs and approaches. He insists on calling these ideas leftist. One can make a counter argument with much simpler assumptions. Hispanics support immigration reform, Asians are barred from the Republican tent but are welcome into the Democratic one. Young people reject the stone age Republican ideas and like the flexibility of the Democrats. And so on.

    Red states are Republican because they buy the negation of modern standards and like the nod and wink about the non white. A woman can have an abortion but still like the Republican. After all you need a perfect match.

    Left is unions, equal rights, support the poor. Edsall hardly mentions that.


  6. The relationship of Americans to their social welfare programs is in flux – and it’s been on my mind since reading the 2/11/12 NYT article referred to above in the block quote. I agree with Historiann that the contradictory feelings of many Americans to the safety net points to something in the American character.

    My experience as a middle-aged white male in a blue collar trade is that while often the feelings of shame of using government programs are internalized, more often than not they are projected onto minorities. I know that point will come as no surprise to thoughtful readers of this blog, but I think the extent that this season’s right-wing whisper campaign of e-mails and talk radio topics featured welfare has gone unmentioned in the mainstream media. The 2004 election gave us Swift-boating, the 2008 election featured Obama as a covert Muslim, and the starring character of 2012 was the woman (presumably African-American or Hispanic) who pays for her groceries with an EBT card while simultaneously carrying a cell phone and owning a car – clearly signs (to the welfare critics) that she did not need the assistance with buying food. This trope made it around Facebook in a number of guises, was e-mailed in different permutations and even made it into a pseudo-scholarly article by Victor Davis Hansen.

    One of the most frustrating moments of the season for me was reading the rants of a FB friend and highway patrolman in California who made over $100K last year gripe about welfare cash benefits in his state, which as far as I can tell average about $200 per month for a family of three.

    The criticism of government programs over the last three decades has been steady and loud – especially with the rise of Fox News. On the Left there are few vocal defenders of the American welfare system. Obama as defended such programs in general (“we don’t leave anyone behind”) but not so much in particular. I think many working class whites have internalized the unanswered criticism of welfare programs and consider the safety net something that minorities would take advantage of, but an honorable white person would not.


  7. Sam: Dr. B. Rush was in primary care, too! I live with a pediatrician, so that’s probably why that quote stuck out for me. I found it years ago, but continue to think about it when I hear about a particularly frustrating day for Fratguy. I think a lot of proffies will also recognize this tendency: 5% of the students/patients create 95% of the hassle, and 95% of the students/patients create 5% of the hassle. It’s important to remember the 95% of patients/students who listen & appreciate our advice.

    Geoff, I’m sure you’re right that many white people are projecting their shame and resentment onto non-whites. The Romney campaign and its surrogates/superPAC allies were more shameless about this than any campaign since the 1980s (shades of the Jesse Helms “hands” ad in 1984 or the Willie Horton ad in 1988). This is also what I was getting at with my comment about the “pro-life” women who still want their abortions. Most people believe in exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or me, as the old joke goes. That’s the kind of thinking that can lead a (white) person to vote for Romney/Ryan while on SSI/medicare/medicaid/Social Security/enjoying a mortgage-interest tax deduction/and/or a guaranteed student loan.


  8. I think Bardiac is right; though maybe not so much that government benefits are not recognized, as they are divided into earned/deserved/OK (social security, medicare) vs. unearned/undeserved/bad (welfare, food stamps). Things like unemployment is intermediate, and student loans probably fall into the first category somehow. What’s still present in the culture is the puritan distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. A good rule of thumb for this thought process is that if benefits are means tested, they are for the undeserving, but if they are universal, they can be ok.

    At least that’s how I read the discussion.


  9. I think that’s right. The earned v. unearned benefits categories are pretty important. I would like to find out what people think welfare or food stamp benefits are worth. I would like to see the critics of these “unearned & undeserved” programs try to live on those benefits.

    Do people really think welfare is such easy living that they’d honestly trade places? I guess it’s that failure of imagination I have a very hard time understanding.


  10. My experience as a public benefits attorney is that even when white people are using benefits, some think their use of benefits is more excusable/explainable than that of people of color (unfortunate circumstances v. laziness or a ‘culture of dependency’). Some also assume that the programs are run for the benefit of people of color, so that when they have difficulty qualifying, they think it’s because they aren’t black/Latino/Asian/whatever, not because the rules are confusing and punitive due to deliberate policy choices by (mostly) elite white people.


  11. I’ve read about this before, and I still can’t really get my head around it:

    “Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.”

    The abortion comparison is spot-on.


  12. Interesting maps. The takeaway doesn’t really surprise me, because it’s a remnant of the Solid South of the 20th C and the Nixon Southern strategy. The confederacy lives, at least among older, whiter, richer folks!

    It saddens me, although the maps of Obama supporters show a lot less regionalism. That’s a hopeful sign. Perhaps we are recovering from the divisions sewn centuries ago that led to the U.S. Civil War? (How many generations of older Americans do we have to get rid of, is my question.)


  13. A good rule of thumb for this thought process is that if benefits are means tested, they are for the undeserving, but if they are universal, they can be ok.

    This is, of course, why greedy rich motherfuckers who don’t like paying taxes support means testing of Medicare and Social Security. Because once that happens, then it will be easier to choke the life out of those programs as solely benefiting the “undeserving”.


  14. As important as the deserving/undeserving framework are the cultural assumptions that Linden mentions about how people define “social welfare programs.” I’m not familiar enough with US history to low how far back this goes (1980’s?), but I was really struck by the widely reported Suzanne Mettler study from a couple of years ago showing that people who benefit from policies like mortgage interest deductions, student loans, 529 savings accounts say they don’t use government social programs, presumably because they define “social programs” as affecting the poor only. This cognitive disconnect (willful misapprehension?) seems essential to understanding the current fiasco of a public debate about the budget and fiscal policy.


  15. The working definition of a ‘social program’ involves a program with a program administrator, and offices, and social workers. The social workers meet with clients and administer benefits.

    This is why the mortgage tax deduction doesn’t register as a ‘social program’. It’s just a line on the income-tax form; it is not a ‘program’ in any way commonly understood.

    It also isn’t ‘social’ in that it doesn’t obviously aim to strengthen the social fabric by teaching parenting skills or helping the handicapped integrate with mainstream society or anything else normally understood as ‘social’ goals. People mostly perceive the mortgage tax deduction as a straight-up financial benefit.


  16. The funny thing about the Food Stamp program is that the program was initially designed as much to find reliable mercantilistic outlets for then-abundant grain belt crop yields before they figured out how to get the government to force people to fill up with “ethanol” as it was about making sure that poor kids went to bed less hungry. It also benefited corporatized grocery chains.

    We should all have a ‘fess up session about the various mobility safety-net programs that we benefited from without angst over whether that meant you were welfare-dependent. When I was in graduate school, for example, the IRS did not define the stipend for being a teaching assistant as reportable income, since it was embedded in a required “educational” activity. Also, I moved into a house in West Philly with five other freaks, and to make the costs more equitable and affordable everyone who signed the lease informally agreed to sign up for food stamps (for which we were technically eligible) and to toss the stamps into a collective house grocery pot. We didn’t think of it as a “group home” in the “inner city.” And you could get unemployment after rotating off of a pre-determined cycle of semesters of grant aid for being a t.a. or a research assistant. All of these things, I think, have been legislatively or administratively erased from the C.F.R without incurring the pejorative of “welfare reform.” I didn’t “build” that career, in other words, I surfed along on the surge of mid-20th century liberal optimism and generosity.


  17. Very interesting points, Wogglebug. I never thought about how even the different ways we administer benefits are used as a marker to show which groups are favored or disfavored. If you’re applying for TANF, you’re very poor and you’re at a government office, staffed by government workers, full of other people in the same situation. You must fill out multiple forms, answer intrusive questions under penalty of perjury, be photographed and fingerprinted, and agree to have your home randomly inspected by police-like agents. Even getting the appointment is difficult — you take what time is open, regardless of your schedule, and if you miss it, you must wait to be rescheduled. Miss too many appointments, and your case is closed and you must start all over again.

    Contrast this with claiming the mortgage interest tax break. Your economic class is in the middle brackets on up. You’re at a private office, meeting with a tax professional, at an appointment you were able to set up at your convenience. You’re treated as a favored client. No fingerprinting, no photographing, no questions about who shares your house with you, who fathered your children, or whether you’ve been convicted of any drug felonies. No time limit to how long you can claim the benefit. No work requirement. And yet, the value of the benefit you’re receiving far outstrips the small amount of money a family getting TANF receives.


  18. @Geoff

    The worst part of it is that you have these welfare-to-work plans, so you can’t find a job and work without a phone and a car, but if you have a phone and a car you shouldn’t be on welfare because you’re not poor enough. So what then? And the answer, of course, is that poor and minority citizens should suffer in silence for their own moral failings, while the rest of us enjoy the well-earned fruits of our moral superiority and hard work.


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