Kudos to The New York Times

At last, a good man-on-the-street story

Reporters Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff deserve praise for their piece in Sunday’s Times showing how some of the good folks of Chisago County, Minnesota, are taking handouts from the government while simultaneously railing against wasteful governmental spending. Campaign Desk has long urged the media to get out and talk to ordinary people. The Times did just that, and offered a picture of Americans conflicted by their growing economic needs and today’s dominant ideology, which dictates the best government is the one that that governs least.

We meet eight Minnesotans. There’s 57-year-old Ki Gulbranson, a struggling small business owner who has never made more than about $46,000 a year. His business has morphed from gift shop to jewelry store and now to one that sells screen-printed clothing. To make ends meet, he uses the earned-income tax credit, which offsets some of his payroll taxes. He says the money from the credit pays for sports activities and car insurance for his kids. He is conflicted, however: “You have to help and have compassion as a people because otherwise you have no society but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And this is what we’re doing.” But he added: “I don’t demand that the government does this for me. I don’t feel like I need the government.”

Seventy-four-year-old Bob Kopka and his wife attend weekly meat raffles in the basement of an American Legion Hall and depend on Medicare. Without it, Kopka would not have had his three heart procedures, nor would his wife have had cataract surgery. He would be dead, and she would be blind, Kopka says. Barbara Sullivan, 71, cried when a reporter asked about financial matters. A monthly Social Security check of $1,222 is her only source of income, and it’s tough to pay the rent and have money left over for food.

Brian Qualley, 49, has a sister who is disabled, and the government pays for her care in an assisted living facility. Qualley owns a tattoo parlor, and his comments reminded me of those I heard last fall from the owner of a church goods store in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the owner resented people with disabilities, because he said they drove their scooters into his store and then stood up to buy his wares. Qualley said his customers with disability checks come in for $300 or $400 tattoos and “they’re wearing nice new Nike shoes that I can’t afford.” He seemed unconcerned about retirement income and health care when he got old, because he said he never wanted to leave the tattoo business. The reporter asked what if his hands started to shake. He replied that it was his shoulders and neck that bothered him the most.

Barbara Nelson, 61, said she had little patience for people who said they did not need government help and thought most people can afford to pay more taxes. “Anyone who can come into a coffee shop and buy coffee is capable of paying more,” she said. Gordy Peterson, 62, disabled from a construction accident, thinks the government should operate by paying cash because he paid for his house in cash. Peterson has benefitted from the government in the form of Social Security disability checks, a workers’ compensation settlement that let him buy a farm, and Medicare to cover his health expenses. Recently he hit the government jackpot when the county using federal dollars bought a portion of Peterson’s farm to build a new interstate exchange. He use the money to built a gas station at the edge of the farm which has prospered catching traffic from the new interchange. And so it went in Chisago County.

The story not only allowed the stories of the men and women on the street to unfold, it wove in enough context that readers could understand how these people fit into the larger picture. “Public support for Republican candidates who generally promise to cut spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects,” the paper reported. The greater the spending, the greater support for Republicans, it seems. States that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democrats. We learn that in the last thirty years Chisago County has moved from dependably Democratic to reliably Republican. Dean Lacy, a Dartmouth professor of political science, says neither demographics nor social issues explain this pattern. Some of the people interviewed cite personal experience—family members who have benefitted—-as the reason they want to cut spending. Go figure.

The story did miss a couple of points that maybe can be amplified in a follow-up. Dean Baker, a liberal economist who blogs for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, points out that the piece implies that the growth of government programs rather than the economic downturn is responsible for the current federal deficit. Baker says the real problem faced by those portrayed in the story is that they have not shared in the gains of economic growth; then he writes that “if workers get their share of projected productivity growth real wages will rise by roughly 1.3 percent a year, even assuming a higher portion of compensation going to pay health care benefits.” But, he argues, if current policies that “enforce this patter of income distribution persist, then workers in the future will find their taxes to be a serious burden,” a theme laced throughout the interviews.

All in all, the Times’s piece is a welcome contribution to the public discourse on entitlements and other safety net programs—a high bar for other news outlets to follow.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,