Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Believing government shouldn’t help is one thing, but tell us where the help should come from

with 4 comments

“What I believe is obvious, okay. It’s obvious that government should be limited. If the government wasn’t helping us with the food stamps or unemployment, somebody out there would be. Government don’t need to be helping. They don’t need to be helping us, they don’t.”

As Congress closes up shop for another year of legislation, the “do-nothing” Congresses from history books would be envious of the first half of this Congressional session. Horrible economy? Not one single jobs bill. Not even a bad one. And no indication that 2012 will bring any better news.

President Barack Obama is trying what little he can do. Payroll tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits, simple obvious things, are traveling down a rocky road in bare feet. If those moves get passed, they are drops in thimbles in buckets. People need help.

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the GOP House leadership are satisfying their constituencies: corporate companies that are “people,” Grover Norquist, an economic philosophy that has been proven to fail, and people who genuinely believe government’s role isn’t to help people in need.

The quote above is from one of those people, Paul Starr featured in the Vanguard documentary “Two Americas.” The documentary shows us two families, one rich and one poor. In the poor family, Paul and his wife April are out of work, scrounging up money just to make sure they still have electricity for the next day.

These people don’t believe the government should help, but they take the help anyway. As the couple scrounge to get money to keep the electricity going, he calls his mother. She is on Social Security; at first, she says she can’t help him, but later offers $175 to help keep the lights on for the couple and their two young sons.

These American people — who believe government shouldn’t help — collect Social Security benefits, are on Medicare and Medicaid, take food stamps, and get unemployment benefits.

These are not uber-rich, they don’t have walk-in closets or domestic help. They are part of the 99%, yet they are tired of people beating up on the 1%. They are behind in their bills, deep in credit card debt, unemployed or certainly underemployed. They don’t raise much of a fuss, almost certainly go to church on Sunday, and want a safe world for their kids.

As part of the documentary, the Starr family watches a GOP presidential debate sponsored by Fox. One of the questions centers around a poll where 66% of Americans think a tax on the wealthy is a good idea to help pay down the deficit.

“The question was, the wealthy. Are the wealthy paying enough?” Paul says. “I think they are,” April answers.

“I know they are,” Paul says emphatically. “I mean, we’re all paying the same thing, right?” asks April.

It would be easy to say they these people are blind, their ears dominated by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk radio and the folks at Fox. The truth is that these media sources reinforce a basic belief these people sincerely believe, and reinforce their fears in the process.

Paul doesn’t have a college education, neither does April. He has worked in the construction industry. He lost his job and has struggled with finding another job. She is having a hard time finding a job. When they get interviews, they get excited, and say the interviews went well. Then the words on the screen tell us that they never got called back.

To get the $250 he needs to keep the electricity short-term, Paul gets $75 from a nearby church and $175 from his mother. There are plenty of other bills that are long past due. April is on the phone, repeating what the phone company is saying on the other side of the conversation that once the wife hangs up, she’ll have no more phone service.

It’s comforting to think that you don’t need the help from government; after all, you think, your neighbor will come through for you. But what if your neighbor is poor and lose his job? In the documentary, they stand outside and see the power company cutting off their neighbors’ electricity for non-payment. Did someone magically come along and help them?

This is the problem with having a 1% and a 99%. If you are on the poor side of the 99%, which is really saying something, chances are your neighbors are pretty poor, too. While the couple in the documentary got enough money to keep the lights on, they lost their phone and Internet service, things you need in a job search.

Even when people are finding work, the money offered is less than they were getting, and less than you would think a job such as that would be worth. Meanwhile, rent, food, electricity, etc. are all going up in cost. As we saw from a segment on NBC’s “Rock Center,” plenty of working people are eligible and taking advantage of food stamps.

The rich family, Javier and Lucinda Loya, in the documentary have three homes and their bills are paid on time. Like the Starrs, the Loyas have two children, both girls. This rich family raises money for charity, and remember when they had very little money. The Loya family is in the 1%, yet their attitude toward those that are less fortunate is more gracious than the Starr family.

When the Starrs watch their neighbors lose their electricity, their focus is on whether they will lose their own power.

Paul finally finds a job for slightly more than half of what he was making … with a catch. He has to travel several weeks at a time for the job. So the family is bringing in a lot less money, not to mention extra travel expenses. They don’t have to feed him at home while he’s gone, but you have to figure that he will have to eat out more on the road, reducing their income even further.

These are people who don’t question a whole lot. If they aren’t getting help from the banks, they don’t tie it into greed or TARP or bailouts. The economy around them is falling apart, but they don’t associate it to decisions made in Washington or Austin (they, like the rich family, live in Houston). They don’t wonder whether the politicians they supported when they lived in Alabama and the ones they support in Texas are voting on bills that have had a negative impact on the economy.

Long-time The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten once said about a non political person that he “willed himself into a certain protective ignorance about the way life works.”

Paul and April Starr have a political philosophy, yet also have a “certain protective ignorance.” They aren’t alone. And these people don’t all live in the South, though a lot of them do. These are the people that Boehner and Cantor are fighting for when they don’t pass a jobs bill and they don’t help those in need. They don’t want government’s help, but they’ll take it. They still won’t like it, and they won’t vote for people who will help make their lives better. They just don’t get the connection.


4 Responses

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  1. My name is Paul Starr and Yes… The same “Paul Starr” that is featured in the “Two Americas”…. With all my heart and soul… Whoever wrote the above column is as ignorant as the day is long! So many facts that were not shown on that documentary that should have been and I was honestly outraged by it… Just as I am with the above column! If you want the facts… Get them from me…
    Thank you,
    Paul Starr

    Paul Starr

    September 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    • All we can go by, and what the column was reflecting, was the documentary. So if there are facts outside the documentary, that isn’t ignorance. That’s knowledge none of us can have since your life is your own. If you’d like to share specifics about the documentary in this space, we would welcome a conversation.


      September 8, 2013 at 8:29 am

      • Fact… Yes we took the aid of the government however… My point (that got edited out) in the documentary was churches, food pantries, and various other programs help people as well. What happens to so many people is that once they start receiving government aid… It becomes a habit and hence forth becomes a necessity causing dependence. This “dependence” becomes a problem for all of the other hard working tax payers that actually do have jobs and pay taxes. In your column above… What you are saying is that you yourself feel that it is ok to have the Government take care of all of it’s people correct? With the massive rise of people becoming un-employed and depending on our Government for aid… Where do you think the Government is going to get that money??? From people such as yourself that’s who. Are you willing to someday to have to pay 60 or 70 percent of your salary or wage to our Government? At what point would that actually affect you? I don’t want my Government to have to take care of me… I did it for a short time and now I’m free from it. Your comment about “their ears dominated by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk radio”… How or where did you assume that??? What part of the “documentary of facts you have” did you get that??? I know I never said that… You’re “assuming”. Good job!

        Paul Starr

        September 14, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      • The vast majority of those who go on food stamps are off it pretty quickly. The hoops that you have to jump through don’t make people want to stay on the program anymore than they have to. And you are living proof of that.

        Yes, churches, food pantries, etc. do a wonderful job of helping. But they are a drop in the lake of food insecurity. You might like watching “A Place at the Table” to get a broader perspective on this topic.

        The government, on any level, can’t do everything, but there are some things that they can do better than the private sector — including food help. And this is why we have local, state, and federal government.

        As for tax rates, my only issue is that we should be getting more for what we pay in taxes. We haven’t in part because of misguided policies against helping Americans in favor of unnecessary wars overseas.

        As for the Rush Limbaugh etc. comment, that wasn’t directed at you. That refers back to the first paragraph. But I can see where you might have thought that.


        September 15, 2013 at 4:35 pm

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