We see it pop up in the news all the time: The people who most hate on the idea of government assistance are sometimes the ones getting it. Just last week, there were reports that Michele Bachmann's husband gets farm subsidies and reportedly received $137,000 in Medicaid money. A new paper from Cornell University puts this dynamic in chart form, and the results are kind of shocking:
Half of people getting federal student loans don't think they've ever used a government social program. Forty percent of Medicare recipients have no idea their health insurance is funded by the state. And 25 percent of the people receiving that emblem of All That Is Bad About Big Government, welfare, don't connect that paycheck to the "enemy." Given the fact that one in six Americans use anti-poverty programs alone, there's a hell of a lot of people who are deluded about how much the government helps them out.
But the point isn't really whether or not these people are hypocrites or uneducated or ungrateful; more compelling is why they'd see themselves as exceptions. Shame about government help is ingrained into our culture, and so is the narrative of the "culture of dependence." It's not only rightwingers and deficit hawks who feel this way. When my contract position ended temporarily, it didn't even occur to me to apply for unemployment to fill the gap until my father suggested it to me. When I waved him off, feeling embarrassed, he balked. "Are you kidding?" he replied. "That's what those deductions on your paychecks were for."
The contempt for so-called welfare queens and the lazy unemployed masses looking for "handouts" still endures, and has intensified lately as government programs are on the chopping block. Sure, there are a few people who abuse the system, but many have made the point that this is a skewed, racist way of looking at how government assistance operates. And many people might not realize that "government programs" constitute much more than just welfare and unemployment.
We need to stop thinking that people who receive government help are "them." Not only does that attack poor and middle class people without boosting them up, but there's also a good chance we're talking about ourselves.