Facebook Twitter RSS

Rethinking the New York Times’ visit to Chisago County

Date Published: 02/23/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


The dear hearts and gentle people of our own small towns in Chisago County were in the national spotlight recently, targets of a New York Times Sunday blockbuster (Feb. 12) headlined, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.”

The article, complete with an interactive map showing “The Geography of Government Benefits,” displayed the percentage of income from entitlements in every county in the nation. And the powerfully important main theme was that many hardworking rural and suburban white folks who tended to vote for anti-government Tea Party candidates (in this case 8th District U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack) were actually benefitting as much as or more than urban and liberal voters from the government’s social programs.

Among the anti-tax voters in the exurbs northeast of the Twin Cities was the struggling owner of a logo apparel shop, who, it turned out, also receives an earned-income tax subsidy for working families. His children benefit from free meal programs at school, and his mother had hip surgery twice through Medicare. He expressed confusion and ambivalence about feeling he did not need the government and yet depending on it for his health care and retirement.

“When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less,” the Times reporters wrote, “many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs.”

There’s something not quite right about affluent big-city reporters making small-town folks cry about their “dependency” and apparent hypocrisy, although the piece did a great public service by pointing out that a vast swath of conservative America really does depend on their federal, state and local governments, especially right now.

As a former journalist myself, I know every story can’t be about everything. But important stuff was missing here.

Missing was any perspective on how the wealthiest citizens and employers in the region have also benefitted from large federal and state tax cuts in recent years, many millions in tax dollars for infrastructure investments (such as Interstate 35 and sewer and water service) promoting cheap exurban development, an educated workforce and some of the better public schools in the state, and all the other valuable things governments do to protect and enhance private property and wealth.

Also missing was a distinction between entitlements such as welfare benefits and other economic security programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which are paid for in part by the workers who later benefit from them. Only about 10 percent of entitlements (see CBPP chart) actually flow to people who are officially poor, able-bodied, non-elderly and not working.

Also missing was the crucially important fact that safety net benefit levels and eligibility levels have not been significantly expanded or enriched over the last 30 years. The larger truth is that this increasing “dependence” is largely a function of demographic changes and what the private sector has done to the middle class and working poor in the United States over the last 30 years.

In the decades after the New Deal and World War II, middle-income families actually were gaining a larger share of income and wealth and the richest Americans were getting a smaller share (but were still rich, after all). These are the times many conservatives hearken back to as “the good old days.” Tax rates were much higher on wealthy individuals and heirs, and many more people belonged to labor unions.

Since 1980 and the rise of more conservative economic policymaking — combined with the equally powerful effects of technology change and economic globalization — most Americans have suffered declining hourly wages, fewer benefits, higher costs for health care and most important recently, massive layoffs and fewer job opportunities. And as a result, more and more people qualify for the modest benefits of a safety net that is actually weakening in buying power.

The best short take on this essential truth also was carried in The New York Times, shortly after the front-page splash, by columnist Paul Krugman.

“The rise in safety net spending over the past decade does not reflect an expansion of that safety net,” Krugman wrote. “Instead, it reflects two things: rising health care costs, and a terrible economic slump that has put many more people in need.”

“You really don’t want to fall into … looking at soaring numbers of people on unemployment insurance and food stamps and claiming that this is the welfare state run amok. It’s the financial sector run amok, and pushing more and more people over the edge,” Krugman wrote.

But here’s an even richer irony, playing out on the American political stage right now, against the backdrop of an orchestrated effort over the last couple of decades to make “entitlement” a dirty word.

In order to ensure maximum “entitlement” and privilege for their precious heirs (nice children and grandchildren, no doubt, who need not do a thing to deserve inherited wealth), some wealthy people are fighting tooth-and-nail to reduce or even eliminate the estate taxes on the vast resources that they want to bestow on their children and grandchildren.

Our great American experiment was founded on a revolution against aristocracy and inherited power and privilege and concentrated wealth. And our Declaration of Independence also contained a declaration of equality for all, of universal and equal entitlement to the benefits of self-government, which Abraham Lincoln later declared should be “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Our founding documents are as much about interdependence as independence.

Framing is important. If you ask people if they are worried about “entitlements,” especially if framed by the proposition that “we” can’t “afford” higher taxes for them, you get the kinds of answers shown in the New York Times polling.

But political science researchers also know that citizens strongly feel that their governments must provide a measure of fairness, best framed as “economic security.” People in Chisago County who are receiving these modest entitlements should not have to feel as guilty as the weeping 71-year-old woman cited in the Times article.

“Without (Social Security of $1,220 a month and a Medicare-paid operation), I’m not sure how I would live,” the woman told The Times. “With the check I’m getting from Social Security, it’s a constant struggle on making sure that I pay my rent and have enough left for groceries. I haven’t bought a Christmas present, I haven’t bought clothing in the last five years, simply because I can’t afford it.”

This woman and millions like her across our country are entitled to at least what she has, and probably to a little better deal.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, February 23, 2012.

Support Our Work