Sunday’s New York Times article about people in Chisago County, Minnesota who criticize the social safety net while receiving benefits from has been weighing on me for the past few days. Despite it’s length, it’s well worth reading.
Here’s a quick summary. The author interviewed several people. While they didn’t qualify as poor based upon the current poverty line ($23,050 for a family of four living in the 48 contiguous states). Many earned several thousands of of dollars above the poverty line, some more than double. The people were below the county’s median household income, $63,237. They received some sort of financial benefit from the federal government, such as Medicare, Social Security, or the earned income tax credit. Yet, they leaned towards the Republicans over the Democrats.
Towards the end of the article it noted the findings of a political scientist from Dartmouth, Dean P. Lacey. He found that over the last generation in areas where people generally received more government support, they tended to vote Republican over Democrat.
It seems odd. The Republicans have been clearly seeking to reduce financial benefits or entitlements (we could be very clinical and call them what they really are, “government transfer payments”) as a way to reign in the government. Why would they vote against their financial interests?
I’m probably not alone in finding this deliciously ironic – why bite the hand that feeds you?
Yet, this article disturbed me. Reading between the lines, there is real pain in these stories. These people see themselves as part of the middle class – they’re not supposed to be getting help from the government. Yet, by their receiving government assistance it’s further evidence that the middle class is losing economic ground.
We’re losing economic ground. It’s costing us more in so many ways. College is almost becoming unaffordable and puts a huge financial strain on families who are trying to pay for it and still leaves graduates with huge debt. Housing costs have increased to the point where some people are paying more than a third of their income for a roof over their heads. Although most people have medical insurance, deductibles are increasing. Basically, net income isn’t what it once was.
Still, we believe that as members of the middle class we shouldn’t have to receive government transfer payments. They take away benefits from those who we believe are truly deserving, the poor. No one in the article begrudged those benefits from going to help the poor.
Lying underneath this irony is an ethical point. We should not take benefits that are not intended for us. I think that’s missing in the debate about entitlement programs that’s raging among our political leadership. By siding with the GOP, they’re taking a stand even though it is not in their economic interests. From a Christian perspective, they are going to the cross.
I concede their point, but I think there’s another way to see this.
Things changed beginning in the 1980s. The tax code overhaul in 1984 was one. Also the diminution of labor unions has been another. (Reagan’s action to kill the air traffic controllers union early in his administration has not been studied enough. I believe it signaled businesses that the federal government was not sympathetic to unions.) Together, they have led to increasing income inequality. At first it was barely noticeable. Today, however, it is blatantly in our faces.
As a result, the middle class has been losing economic ground. By receiving government transfer payments to sustain a economic quality of life, we’re implicitly and tacitly acknowledging that we’re poor.
The Democrats think let’s just expand eligibility and let’s provide more funds. The GOP wants to hold fast to allowing only those who are truly needy receive these transfer payments. And by holding fast to these positions, they’re not reconcilable. Thus, gridlock.
The public policy question is how do we make the middle class feel economically secure? What are the pubic policy tools that will create a fairer tax code, ensure employers pay decent wages with decent benefits, provide a secure and affordable health care system, and design a way to finance college education to keep it affordable without saddling graduates with crushing debt? There are probably others if I put my mind to it.
At its heart, the implicit social contract is broken. Starving the government by keeping taxes ridiculously low as a strategy to keep it from growing has been futile and has been proven every year since Reagan was president. On the other hand, we can’t continue to fund government as we are without making some serious decisions about spending priorities. We also need to ask ourselves how we’re defining a sustainable middle class life.
We need this conversation. We need political leadership who will start this conversation and we need to find venues where we can have this conversation among ourselves. The divide in political leadership can’t continue if we’re going to remain a strong nation. We should not forget “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3:25)