As a liberal living in a small southern town, I’m exposed to a lot conservative viewpoints. Listening to these views and opinions sometimes makes my blood boil, but it is my personal policy not to argue, or even attempt to debate in social situations. Instead, I listen and struggle to empathize. It is important to me to try and understand why they think like they do because some of them are people I love, or at least like.
Most are against such hot button issues as gay marriage and abortion, but it is becoming clear to me that what really fuels their staunch conservatism is a misunderstanding of government social and welfare programs and the recipients of these programs.
In their minds, there is an overwhelming and growing number of people in this country that are making a career of being “on welfare.” In the average conservative’s opinion(at least the ones I talk to), these people, mostly black, suck from the government tit, while the government fills that tit with the conservatives own blood, in the form of taxes. In this world they see, these welfare recipients do nothing but lay around all day, supporting Obama, doing drugs and watching TV, while tax dollars pay the cable and crack bill.
It is a stereotype reinforced by Reagan’s famous “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” quote and various news programs and pundits. This fantasy that has gotten entrenched in their minds makes them angry every time they see the tiniest bit of taxes taken out of their meager paycheck. They see it going straight to the welfare queen’s gemstone studded purse. If I was deluded into believing this, I would be angry too.
They can not see the reality. While there are many instances of welfare fraud in our country, and plenty of sad folks that have had government social programs as their only means of support for their entire lives, the reality is that many working class U.S. citizens also benefit from government welfare programs in one way or another. As the New York Times pointed out last week, conservatives and those critics of welfare programs oftentimes benefit without realizing it.
Let’s use a real life example of a man from my town. Bill is a wonderful man, active in his church and community and I know him well. If I called Bill in the middle of the night and asked him to help me, I feel sure he would come running. He’s also funny and engaging. I like him a lot.
Bill retired when he was 62 and began receiving Social Security benefits. He comes from a long-lived family and is likely to live to his mid 80s or beyond and will spend 20+ years collecting Social Security. For the time being, he receives his health care (which he describes as excellent) from the VA, having spent four years in the military in the 70s. He has four grown children and numerous grandchildren. They all have vocational educations that were funded by Pell Grants. Even though Bill and his family are all fundamentalist Christians, none of his children are married because of the increased benefits to single mothers via WIC and Earned Income Credit.
When Bill’s children and their young families fall short at the end of the month and can’t pay their electricity bill, they are not helped by their parents or church, but are sent to receive help from a non-profit organization that assists in paying energy bills. This organization is funded by government grants.
Bill’s father died when he was 82, after receiving a $100,000+ triple bypass and valve replacement when he was 79, compliments of Medicare. Bill’s mother is 93 and lives at the local nursing home. Just after Bill’s father died, and a few years before his mother’s health began to deteriorate to where she could no longer take care of herself, Bill put all of her substantial assets in his name. Therefore, when the time came, his mother was eligible for Medicaid to pay for her long term care. She has been there nearly five years.
Yet, Bill is a staunch conservative, Republican and supporter of drastic cuts to all social programs. When last we talked, I asked him what he thought was the biggest problem facing the U.S. today. He answered, “Entitlement programs - Specifically, Obama’s redistribution of wealth.”
Our safety net has problems aplenty and needs serious reform. But this cannot be done simply by budget cuts. Perhaps the first step in reform would be for conservatives to practice what they preach.