The Cowboy and the Welfare State

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I finally finished Binyamin Applebaum's (that name sounds familiar) and Robert Gebeloff's epic piece profiling an area of Minnesota where people inveigh against the welfare state, despite being inextricably tied to it:


The government helps Matt Falk and his wife care for their disabled 14-year-old daughter. It pays for extra assistance at school and for trained attendants to stay with her at home while they work. It pays much of the cost of her regular visits to the hospital. 

Mr. Falk, 42, would like the government to do less. 

"She doesn't need some of the stuff that we're doing for her," said Mr. Falk, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in North Branch. "I don't think it's a bad thing if society can afford it, but given the situation that our society is facing, we just have to say that we can't offer as much resources at school or that we need to pay a higher premium" for her medical care... 

He said that his family appreciated the government's help and that living with less would be painful for them and many other families. But he said the government could not continue to operate on borrowed money. 

"They're going to have to reduce benefits," he said. "We're going to have to accept it, and we're going to have to suffer."

This kind of thinking reminds me of home. I went to school with a significant number of people who were on some sort of government assistance. The projects were the most obvious, and I suspect that some portion of the violence which characterized them came from the need to control something. The others -- food stamps and welfare, for instance -- weren't generally talked about, for fear of mockery. Indeed, the first retort any black kid of my era learned was "That's why your momma on food-stamps." The other, of course, was "That's why your momma's an African Bush boogie." Not pretty. 

What you see in both of these insults -- one socio-economic, one racial -- is a kind of self-loathing, a sense of shame. I think of the great Just Ice calling welfare "embarrassing and downright indignant" and a seed of "low self-esteem." I think about Big Daddy Kane describing a woman on welfare as, "the heavyset one with about ten children." I don't have the polling available, but my recollection is that despite the racial aspects of welfare reform, it enjoyed considerable support  in the black community.

The fact is that black people are Americans, and among all Americans -- and perhaps all humans -- the myth of self-reliance, for better or worse, is powerful. Has it always been this way? Are there some effects from public assistance becoming increasingly racialized? Is it some combination of both? An old self-image mutating with the racial politics of the day?

I'm not sure. But what I strongly suspect is the sort of shame you see in Mr. Falk's is neither crazy, nor ignorant, nor shocking, once you think about it. We all want to be cowboys. More, we sometimes want leaders who push toward that imagined self, as opposed to our statistical self. 

As I have always said, this not a matter of voting "against your interest." Your stated interest is in being a cowboy. The way to engage that person is not to condescend to them and assume they just have less information than you. It's to try to get them to game out where cowboy logic leads.

At the end of Applebaum piece there's a disabled man who identifies as a "conservative" who beautifully demonstrates how that work looks. I won't excerpt it. I hope you guys read the whole thing. It's worth it.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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