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Turning a blind eye to government benefits

Posted: February 23, 2012 12:11 p.m.
Updated: February 24, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Why do Americans so often vote against their own economic interests? Because money isn't everything. Values matter, too, especially when your values tell you that cuts in government spending won't bring new pain to hard workers like you.

That's my simplest answer to that often-perplexing question. Here's a longer one:

The question has taken on new urgency as two big issues drive the politics of this election year: income inequality and growing government debt. White working-class voters form the Republican Party's base as it fights against tax increases on the wealthy. Yet college-educated upper-income earners are among President Barack Obama's biggest supporters as he pushes for those upper-income tax hikes.

The latest surprises to confirm this stereotype-defying trend come in a New York Times report published last weekend. It found that the red states, which vote most reliably for deficit-cutting conservatives and traditional self-reliance values, also happen to be the states in which government benefits account for the largest share of personal income.

Hypocrisy? No, let's be charitable. Many recipients of government benefits have, shall we say, an elastic idea of what constitutes a "government benefit."

I was informed of this in a gigabyte of emails that I received last summer after writing about a study by Cornell's Suzanne Mettler. She found that substantial percentages of people who are receiving benefits of such programs as Social Security (44 percent), unemployment (43 percent) and Medicare (40 percent) told researchers that they have not received a "government benefit."

Irritated readers responded with personal arguments that basically went like this:

"How dare you refer to (Social Security/ Medicare/ unemployment/ home mortgage income tax deduction/ etc., etc.) as a 'benefit.' I worked hard for (fill in the blank) years to earn my (Social Security/ Medicare/ unemployment/ home mortgage income tax deduction/ etc., etc.), you (fill in the invective)."

Believe me, I get it. The dispute here is between what I mean when I say "benefit" and what some people hear. In the years since Ronald Reagan won blue-collar votes by denouncing "welfare queens" and the like, many voters have come to associate the word "benefits" with handouts to "deadbeats" and "losers" and "cheats."

But, sorry, folks, if you think of your Social Security taxes, for example, as some sort of deposit to a government savings account or "lockbox," you have a mistaken impression. It's a "government benefit." Own it and protect it.

In that values vein, I had a recent email exchange with Charles Murray, the often-controversial libertarian scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, while writing a column on his new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." Put simply, it argues that the divide between those who have a college education and those who don't is widening not only in income and upward mobility but also in cultural values.

Contrary to common beliefs, the new yuppie-era upper class that Murray labels "Belmont" is adhering to old-school traditional values as measured by such statistical standards as marriage, parenting, work habits and church attendance rates -- while those measures show the new, lesser-educated worker class that he calls "Fishtown" is sliding into a new underclass of long-term unemployment, fatherless children and dependency.

My criticism: Murray's analysis, while important, puts too much of the blame on culture and too little on the seismic structural changes in our economy since the 1960s. The low-skill, high wage jobs that supported American family life in earlier decades largely have been lost to cheaper labor markets overseas.

But, given Murray's view that blue-collar whites are drifting away from the values of upper-class elites, I asked whether he had any thoughts as to why blue-collars whites continue to vote conservative, according to exit polls.

"You've still got a big proportion of Fishtown that's getting married, working hard, etc.," he wrote back. "They're the ones who are most likely to vote (overall voting among the working class is quite low), and also the ones who rationally can vote for conservative candidates. So it's not surprising that the polling results from Fishtown still tend to go Republican."

In other words, the most important values in an election, regardless of income or education, are the ones that motivate you to get off the couch and vote.

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