Owsley County, Welfare, and the Cost of Policy

Democrats like the narrative that low-income voters who vote Republican must being doing something wrong. They must not know that the party does not support welfare. They are often labeled “Low Information Voters”, which is (ironically) a mangling of a social science term that just means voting for a candidate because you know what their party stands for. And while some voters really do vote against their apparent interests, giving people some credit for knowing their lives raises more interesting questions about policy that should give Democrats more pause.

I think this meme is emblematic of the view:


I’m going to skip over the political science lecture where I point out that there is a petty large wing of the GOP that supports welfare. They tend to be, and sit down for this, white and rural and poor. They benefited from the New Deal generations ago and nominally switched parties when the Democrats stopped being the party of the old Confederacy and built a multi-racial coalition. They represent a fossil: the socially conservative, racially backwards, and economically forward coalition that propelled FDR to power. It would be very simply wrong to group them lockstep with the Reagan Republicans. Oh, look. I just did that lecture I said I was going to skip.

But more interestingly, I am not sure Owsley County Kentucky is wrong to throw itself in with GOP interests. Consider Owsley County’s sources of income and what has happened to rural America since Bill Clinton took office. Owsley County is to some extent a victim of environmental regulation. The US still has fairly rich coal seams that we are under-exploiting because of our environmental regulation. That (really, truly) puts people out of work. Free trade has leeched wages out of the working class, though to what extent Owsley County specifically is a victim of that is not clear to me after some brief digging around.

I support these environmental regulations and my thoughts on free trade are complicated, but broadly favorable. They are good for the country. But there are real costs to them, and those costs look a lot like the pictures of Appalachia. Those voters know that candidates from their area might support cutting their benefits, but they also promise to bring jobs back. And their plan is, at face, plausible. Cut environmental regulation and restrict free trade and that would probably help Owsley County more than the welfare state, say what you will about the wisdom of the plan for the rest of us.

We Democrats have convinced ourselves that our plans are common-sense policies that will help everyone. At the same time, we believe that anyone who does not vote like us must be either corrupt or ignorant.

And the truth seems much more complicated.


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