What’s the Matter With Kentucky?

My liberal friends are anxiously reading Alec MacGillis’s, “Who Turned My Blue State Red,” in the Sunday New York Times about growing Republican strength in poor communities. Alec brilliantly explores why eastern Kentucky and similar locales support Republican politicians pledged to cut Medicaid, Food Stamps, and disability programs that specifically benefit these very communities.

MacGillis notes two key points. The first is depressingly familiar: low voter turnout among the specific people most harmed by Republican policies.

The people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period.

MacGillis presents reams of figures that document the simple fact that nonvoters are much more likely than voters to be uninsured, to be unbanked, to have serious unmet economic needs.

The second point is more interesting and more comprehensible at a human level:

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder… And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder.

These Republican voters are not particularly lashing out at supposed others, be they immigrants or black residents of the inner city. Rather, these voters are reacting to their own neighbors and perhaps friends and relatives, who rely on food stamps, Medicaid, or disability payments and who don’t seem fully deserving.

I’m not sure what lesson this provides, from the standpoint of either politics or policy. Supporters of expanded social provision must find better ways to engage poor people, to get out their votes. We can also find more opportunities for fruitful alliances across economic and ideological lines. Over the next several years, I am confident that Medicaid will be expanded across the South, despite widespread opposition. There’s too much money at stake for too many people for the battle to continue much longer after President Obama leaves office. Some tightening of particular programs may help, too. On balance, it’s probably a good thing that federal disability programs have tightened some of their procedures in evaluating mental health and musculoskeletal conditions that have shown the greatest increase in recent years.

Whatever the political or policy lessons, Alec’s essay captures a basic human reality, aptly summarized in the title of Paul Thorn’s great country song: “I don’t like half the folks I love.” 

 

Viewed from afar, one might think that categories such as “deserving poor” or “disabled” are reasonably clear-cut. Viewed up-close, things seem much more fuzzy. Many people who rely on public aid straddle the boundaries between deserving and undeserving, disabled and able-bodied. Many of us know people who receive various public benefits, and who might not need to rely on these programs if they made better choices, if they learned how to not talk back at work, if they had a better handle on various self-destructive behaviors, if they were more willing to take that crappy job and forego disability benefits, etc.

It’s easy, even viewing our own friends and relatives, to confuse cause and effect regarding more intimate barriers. A sad reality of psychiatric disorders is that the very symptoms which inflict mental pain on the sufferer can make themselves felt to others in ways that undermine empathy and personal relationships.

Across the Thanksgiving dinner table, you see these human frailties and failures more intensely and with greater granularity than the labor economist could possibly see running cold data at the Census Bureau. But operating at high altitude, the labor economist sees structural issues you can’t see from eye level.

There have always been vulnerable people, whose troubles arise from an impossible-to-untangle mixture of bad luck, destructive behaviors, and difficult personal circumstance. That economist can’t see why your imperfect cousin can’t seem to get it together to hold a basic job. She can see that your cousin is being squeezed out by an unforgiving musical-chairs economy. Every year, in the backwaters of America, that economy seems to put out fewer and fewer chairs.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.