A Meditation on how Americans Lack Social Welfare Awareness.
Paul Krugman’s New York Times article about “Moochers Against Welfare” points to a fundamental problem that has been getting worse in America since the Clinton era: awareness of social welfare policies. After a recent conversation with a friend on Facebook, it demonstrated what Krugman emphasized — a majority of people who are against social welfare make up the largest share of welfare recipients. This mostly includes the white working-class in red states, seniors, and veterans. Krugman’s article speaks to a more extensive body of research about the opaque nature of private intermediaries involved in the procurement of social welfare policies; some of the most renowned works on the subject being Morgan & Campbell’s The Delegated Welfare State, and Mettler’s The Submerged State. The conversation I had the other day, however, was situated uniquely in today’s political divisiveness.
Before I explain the most recent interaction on social media, one particular moment is worth talking about beforehand. One of my first interactions with an individual that mirrored Krugman’s article occurred in 2014 sitting around a backyard campfire. My long-time friend invited me to spend some quality time with him and one of his close conservative neighbors who was preparing to move to the Carolinas in order to “reset and restart” life. He was a blue-collar character who worked a 9–5 job at a local store and enjoyed hunting as a hobby. He probably had some years of college education under his belt too, but to an extent I am unfamiliar. I had socialized with him a few times before, so I thought it would be in good taste to share my warmest goodbyes. When I arrived, my good friend was gathering sticks preparing for our communal fire like he routinely did. The neighbor eventually showed up in his pick-up truck a few moments later. We all shared in the typical pleasantries of a casual hangout.
After the neighbor cracked open a Budweiser, he turned to me and said, “Mike, I see your posts on Facebook. You’re a liberal right?” I responded, “well I am not much for labels but if supporting a government that makes helping the poor a priority puts me in the liberal column, then sure.” He retorted, “well the Obama Administration is dangerously socialist and is poised to trample our civil liberties like taking all of our guns and control our health. . . it is why I am moving South… There’s more freedom there. Life will be much better.”
Now, for starters, I do not consider myself “liberal” necessarily, and my opinion of Obama has evolved from his election in 2008 to the end of his tenure. His neoliberal reforms and advancement of globalization harmed workers significantly, which arguably gave us Trump. So I wasn’t exactly on board. Though, for someone who wasn’t well studied in politics, it may appear the contrary.
At the time, I had already viewed President Obama as a middle of the road, Third Way Democrat. The conservative neighbor, nonetheless, was under the impression that I was an Obama acolyte and that POTUS was some radical socialist seeking to ‘seize the means of production.’ Hindsight, we all know the reforms made during the Obama era were modest in terms of achieving social democracy at best.
Besides all the gun talk, he proceeded to ask, “how can you support policies that give the poor everything? Obama is giving them phones and healthcare for free! People who work hard are getting ripped off… This is theft, man!” This struck me in a very strange way. I had already known that some of his family members had been on government assistance, so it was hard to navigate the discussion without attempting to have him reflect on his private situation. But I responded respectfully by saying “just because someone is on welfare does not make them a moocher.” He shrugged his shoulders and responded, “well the welfare state promotes socialism, and socialism is bad because it awards people for being lazy.” It was as if he was repeating headlines from Breitbart that day.
I told him how our economy isn’t even close to being socialist, but tried to maintain that our country needs to move in a more socialist direction if it wants to properly uplift marginalized families and resolve inequality. He didn’t have what I was attempting to edify; he continued to argue with me over matters of ‘fact and opinion.’ I was waiting to hear whether he would talk about his personal predicament at home. He never did. This made it hard for me to make a relatable case without seeming “ideological,” as many folks on the right tend to criticize leftists as being. Nonetheless, he was clearly against the idea of welfare.
The most recent interaction on social media involved a video post on Facebook about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in an elevator with Bernie Sanders. The two were preparing for a campaign stop. In the video, Ocasio-Cortez exclaimed, “we are going to make Kansas City red!” The individual wrote on the post headline, “She is such an idiot.”
The post in reference attempted to criticize Ocasio-Cortez on the assumption that she did not know the color differences between Republicans and Democrats. While this initially sounds petty, it is important to note that followers of this post were under the impression that AOC got confused between red and blue and didn’t know which color belonged to which party. The gentleman who shared this also did not realize that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are the color red. There are times at monthly chapter meetings where members say they ‘want to flip certain districts red.’ Of course, this does not mean implanting a Republican; it just means that they want to put someone with socialist values in the seat. Not to mention, many unions such as National Nurses United have the color red. Others promote wearing red to stand in solidarity with Teachers Unions. This has historically been the color of the working-class.
Nevertheless, the individual and I had an extensive (and unsuccessful) debate after I tried explaining how the post wasn’t necessarily following what AOC actually meant. When I explained the aforementioned associations of red with the DSA and other groups, he immediately responded, “c’mon, we all know socialism won’t work. Our grandfathers would be turning in their graves. We are not Cuba.” The gentleman I was conversing with, of course, leans right. But what is most important is that he is a veteran and a recipient of public entitlement programs set in place by social welfare expenditures for veterans. I explained, “yes, the GI Bill, Social Security, and VA healthcare, we are certainly turning into Cuba.” I hoped the sarcasm would prove a point. It obviously was meant to put into perspective that in some instances our government has resorted to socialist-oriented policies to achieve certain goals, especially for ensuring the well-being of veterans. That doesn’t mean we’re turning into Cuba.
He did not know how to respond and kept reposting in the comment thread with a meme of Trump saying “WRONG.”
Another friend of his jumped in the comments and replied, “the GI Bill is not an entitlement! Veterans can choose to opt-in or out. It is not socialism” While there is some accuracy to what he was saying about opting-in/out, to dismiss the extent to which programs like the GI Bill function as public expenditures in providing educational and health benefits to large segments of society is quite shortsighted. He kept missing the point of my discussion. In fact, I explained how the GI Bill was part of FDR’s New Deal reforms to provide more public options and opportunity to veterans so they can achieve social mobility, especially after returning home from the war.
Ironically, the gentleman proceeded to cite a great deal of social democratic policies in place in order to explain how it “isn’t socialism” and that “we are not Cuba.” In a way, without knowing, he was describing how socialist reforms have helped, moreover, how they have been integrated into our society. That was precisely my goal — he did it for me. In the end, however, he took us in circles — there was no agreement, nor did he see my point. Even after posting several reliable sources from benefits.va.gov that specifically presents how veterans benefits are part of our national social welfare spending, and in fact, qualify as “entitlements,” he would not budge.
Both of these examples bring to life exactly the type of population that Krugman talks about in his NY Times article. There are swaths of the “conservative” leaning electorate that publicly claim to be against socialism and social welfare, generally, but are actually benefiting from its fruits in various ways. These two stark examples from my life show that some recipients lack crucial awareness of the programs they or their families receive.
Something as close as a family member on public assistance or a civil service career that provides enormous social benefits is unable to impart the advantages socialist policies provide — at the very least, what public entitlements provide. This problem is only getting worse.
Part of me wonders, are these everyday working people really unable to realize that they are receiving some form of government benefit? Morgan, Campbell, and Mettler would argue that they just don’t know because of the immense privatization reforms these policies have endured throughout the neoliberal era, i.e., the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) being a prime example.
However, even with my insistence on having them realize through explaining these policies in great depth, they still didn’t seem to want to recognize it. How could something so close to home be unrecognizable? Is it because of the perversion that public policy has undergone in late-stage capitalism? Probably, and academic research needs to touch upon this term more explicitly. Research is also beginning to suggest that some conservatives could silently lean left on economics but have socially conservative values. This may be a growing phenomenon; especially, more recently regarding healthcare and fair trade rules. Though, to what extent still needs to be explored.
The most unique paradox of it all is that despite the fact America is a capitalist society, these individuals make up the largest share of beneficiaries of the socialized aspects of our system. While they may publicly lament socialism, it is in fact what is keeping them going and providing them with opportunities to build their future. Ideally, they should be socialism’s biggest advocates.
As a society, we need to improve education regarding social welfare policies and demonstrate how they work so that individuals can more clearly discern the political reality of their lives. Also, it is incumbent upon the American public to hold lawmakers accountable to the reforms they implement so that they do not delegate responsibility to private actors who have an interest in privatizing them — we can better assess the effectiveness of a policy if it is transparent and publicly accessible. Neoliberal reforms have only shown to reverse this capability. Lastly, this speaks to the need to collectively recognize the importance of social welfare benefits and how socialism has been a force for positive change in providing lawmakers with ideas on how to shape just and equitable policymaking.
M. A. Iasilli is a professor of Political Science and History at SUNY Suffolk Community College and a Ph.D. Fellow at St. John’s University where he also teaches World History.