When the topic of social welfare programs come up in my political science classes, the subject usually sparks a heated debate between my students. On one side of the debate are students whose families have benefitted from a program like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). On the other hand are students who argue that the programs are bad because they promote laziness.
Students whose families have benefitted from the programs often tell very poignant stories of how events, such as a parent’s job loss or death, triggered a short-term financial crisis for the family and that government benefits were a bridge to overcoming this hardship, usually in less than a year.
One the other hand, students who believe that social welfare programs cause laziness often claim that they “know” someone in their hometown who lives a very easy life and whose sole means of support is government assistance. They will not directly confront their fellow classmates’ claims about the government programs being a temporary solution to exigent circumstances, but they will continuous make reference to a person or people who have been receiving government assistance “since they can remember.”
The class is usually divided about equally with about half the students falling into each camp, especially since 2008 when the Great Recession hit the families Peace targets especially hard. Trying to extend the discussion beyond this polarization, I often will cite the Government Accounting Office (GAO) estimate that programs like SNAP have a relatively low fraud or waste rate–in the case of SNAP, the most recent estimate by the GAO was 4%.
For students who argue that social welfare programs lead to laziness and believe that a majority of recipients are gaming the system, they reject the GAO estimate, instead relying on their previous beliefs about the programs. Having observed this before, I often ask these students follow-up questions about how much they know about the people in their hometowns who are receiving government assistance and what the recipients’ circumstances are. Many of the students ultimately admit that they don’t actually know a specific person who is abusing the system, but insisting that it is “common knowledge” in their respective hometown about people who are taking advantage or defrauding the government programs.
Urban legends are modern folklore, stories told by many generations, that may or may not be true. The study of urban legends has created a cottage industry with scholars and non-scholars alike trying to separate fact from fiction. In politics, the urban legend of the “Welfare Queen,” is a pejorative term used since the early 1960s to refer to people who fraudulently receive government benefits. Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase in the political world in 1976 when he told the story of the south Chicago “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac.
In politics, the urban legend of people cheating welfare programs continues with today’s young people. Many within this community continue to believe this legend, despite volumes of evidence that suggests that programs like SNAP have relatively little fraud, that almost half the recipients are employed or military veterans or that most receiving benefits are white.
As a college professor who asks students to think critically, it is increasingly frustrating to hear students repeat urban legends that should have died out decades ago. On certain subjects, students will research the issue thoroughly and patiently and often change their mind when presented with overwhelming evidence, even if it contradicts their previously held position. On social welfare programs, however, this is not the case.
As Senate leaders announced general agreement on a bill to avoid a debt ceiling crisis and reopen government, media stories began to proliferate about winners and losers and the political futures of the players in the drama that has been gripping Washington for the last two weeks. In the academic literature, this type of coverage has many names–meta-talk, strategic reporting, or even horse-race journalism. These stories distract audiences into thinking more about the tactics and strategies involved in the legislative process, rather than fostering an understanding of the policy itself.
Before the ink was dry on the bills, stories about John Boehner, Ted Cruz, President Obama, and many other key figures and their future as leaders dominated the airwaves, pages, and blogosphere. Many media outlets reported, for example, a Pew Center poll about how Senator Ted Cruz is perceived by Democrats and Republicans and speculating on his chances as a 2016 presidential candidate. The Christian Science Monitor and many other media outlets had stories about John Boehner’s political future as speaker as the temporary resolution to the crises appeared. Fox News reported that President Obama would use his victory in the shutdown and debt crises to leverage pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. Most outlets, including long discussions on CNN and MSNBC centered on the future of the Republican Party after the immediate crises, often talking about the “fracturing” of the party.
Stories like these dominate media coverage, particularly on television and on-line. Communication researchers point to several causes for this type of coverage. One issue is economics. Cost cutting in traditional media outlets has forced broadcast and cable news outlets to adopt more interview-style coverage in which pundits and party representatives are invited on to talk about the meaning of political events, like the government shutdown or the debt crisis. Inevitably these talking heads move from discussions of policy to discussions of political strategy and tactics.
Another reason for this type coverage is that it reinforces the fictitious media goal of “objectivity.” If the idea is that experts and party representatives talk about winners and losers, then both sides are being represented and media outlets have met the minimum bar of objectivity.
The most significant reason for this type of coverage is that it reinforces the fundamental idea that politics is a contest. The narrative of conflict is sexy for most media outlets. CNN even reconstituted its long-running evening program, Crossfire, to perpetuate this narrative. Over the last two weeks, this show has obsessively focused on the players in the shutdown and debt crises and who is winning and who is losing at any given time.
Recent polls suggest that Americans are less enamored with political winners and losers than the media coverage would indicate. On lists of trusted institutions in American life, media outlets–traditional and new–fall significantly below the Mendoza Line in terms of trustworthiness. It is true that Congress consistently rates lower than media outlets in terms of trustworthiness, but this fixation on meta-talk, instead of hard news reporting does little to change the cynicism most Americans feel about government and those who cover it.
In recent weeks, I have been discussing the government shutdown and potential debt crisis in my classes. Most students really did not seem to be following the stories until the government partially closed. Then I got a number of questions about what parts of government were closed and the issues causing Republicans and Democrats to disagree. The discussion about what parts of government closed was straightforward. The discussion about the causes of the current crises was not.
As the October 1 government funding deadline approached, I brought up the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as the issue driving many Republicans’ decision unwillingness to pass a “clean” continuing resolution keeping government funding in place. Some students did not understand the basics of the ACA, so I set out to explain the basic issues, including the mandate that Americans have health insurance. Several students immediately responded that this was “socialized medicine” and a “government takeover” of health.
I tried to explain how the system was a combination of Medicaid and private insurance companies providing coverage to most of the uninsured. The same students shook their heads during my explanation and, after I finished, told me I was wrong and that government was taking over the entire medical system. After about 20 minutes of talking to the students about how private insurance companies were competing for business through the exchanges, I realized that I was making no headway with those students who refused to believe that the ACA was not socialized medicine. As an assignment, I asked them to write a short paper comparing the American health system under the ACA and the health system in Great Britain. I will be interested to see their work.
Later in the same class, a student asked me to characterize President Obama’s political ideology, since we were talking about political philosophy. Using the Pew Center’s typology (Pew Center, 2011), I responded to the question stating that I though the president was a New Coalition Democrat, a centrist belief system. I explained my observation by noting how some of Obama’s ideas, like supporting gay marriage, were clearly liberal, but some of his ideas, especially in pursuing the war on terrorism (e.g., use of drones in South Asia and curbing civil liberties in this country) were more conservative. I then characterized the ACA as a Republican idea from the Nixon administration, providing a link to white papers from the Nixon administration. This discussion produced a heated response from the same students who objected to my characterization of the ACA as something other than “socialized medicine.” The students told me that I was wrong and that President Obama was a socialist and the most liberal president in American history.
After the ACA discussion, I realized that trying to reason with these students was not going to go well. I asked the students to compare President Obama’s policy record with that of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson to determine which president was more liberal. I realize that using the Socratic method is not always effective, but I wanted the students to use critical thinking. This experiment did not go well either, as the students not only refused to accept that President Obama was not a socialist or even the most liberal president ever, but they refused to even engage in a direct comparison of the records of Obama, Roosevelt, and Johnson.
When I was in college, I was taught that critical thinking was using the best available evidence to make the strongest arguments about an issue. I had conservative professors in the UVA economics and government departments teach that method, as well as liberal professors in English and rhetoric. Thirty years after being taught that critical thinking is an intellectual way of thinking, the idea of critical thinking itself has become politicized. The Texas Board of Education has attempted to remove critical thinking from textbooks used in school and from the K-12 curriculum. Conservative organizations like the John William Pope Center for Higher Education post articles attacking critical thinking (http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2828) by creating straw arguments about how individual instructors use critical thinking to attack the American economic and political systems.
The lack of fundamental critical thinking skills is evident in today’s political culture. The act of denying facts or other forms of evidence in debates over global warming, hydraulic fracturing, or the impact of the United States having a diminished credit rating points to how the classic understanding of critical thinking has all but disappeared. In the Tea Party age, in which critical thinking or argumentation, is not valued or even dismissed, those of use who teach are entering a new era. When students fail to engage in intellectual debate and dismiss their professors as just wrong, I am left to wonder how we can transform today’s dysfunctional political culture when tomorrow’s leaders as deniers-in-training.
As the United States heads from a partial government shutdown last week to the almost unimaginable scenario of defaulting on the national debt, it is worth considering other political situations that were considered equally dire and how politicians ultimately worked out a solution.
The debate over the proper size and scope of government is worth having and the debate should be vigorous. The debate between the federalists and the anti-federalists in the 1780s is a prime example of spirited debate that ultimately produced better government. Likewise, the 1983 debates between President Ronald Reagan and Congressional Democrats, led by House Speaker Tip O’Neill was equally vigorous as they debated issues like tax reform and the future of Social Security.
The major players–Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill–were strong advocates for their respective ideological positions. Reagan often referred to O’Neill as a true “New Deal liberal” and O’Neill often complained about Reagan wanting welfare for the rich. In 1983, despite speeches taking strong stands for their respective positions on taxes and Social Security, both agreed to work together with O’Neill giving a speech to Republicans telling them why they should support Reagan’s position.
The two leaders had a similar philosophy–rivals during the day, but “friends after 6.” Today’s political climate is one in which Reagan and O’Neill would have never survived. Leaders of both parties are so entrenched in their rhetorical and political positions that civility, much less compromise, seems impossible. The relationship between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seems irrevocably damaged as they openly mock each other. Despite beer summits and golf matches, the disdain shown by the two leaders is real. If this was a marriage, no amount of counseling would help the two sides develop empathy toward the other and work out the problems.
When Reagan and O’Neill were arguing by day and sharing a prayer and drink by night, there was a sense that the extreme statements made by the respective leaders was political posturing. Today not only is the rhetoric more extreme, but there is a sense that the leaders actually believe the statements they make. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) compared the fight to defund the Affordable Care Act to the American Revolution. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau stated “Obama will not — he cannot — negotiate with a roving band of anarchists who say, ‘Build our oil pipeline or the troops don’t get paid.'” While Obama and Boehner may lack of hyperbole of Lee and Favreau, their statements about the government shutdown have escalated over time and indicate that both have made their political differences personal.
It is hard to imagine Boehner backing down and it is unlikely that Obama will change his approach. This bodes poorly for the country and political system. During the last two years, Vice President Joe Biden has used his personal friendship with Senator Mitch McConnell to salvage deals at the last minute. It may be time for the two friends, who can engage in their own rhetorical partisanship with the best of them, to rescue the body politic one more time.