Poor, white, and Republican

In the Times story, there’s a man named Ki Gulbranson from a small Minnesota town called Chisago, both barely clinging to the middle class. He tries to make ends meet selling apparel and refereeing kids’ soccer games. All around him, he sees growing dependence on government. No fan of government spending, he joined the Tea Party in 2010; at the same time, he benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit, free school breakfasts for his children, and Medicare for his mother. “I don’t demand that the government does this for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need the government.” Yet he finds it hard to imagine surviving without the safety net. “I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know. Not the way we expect to live as Americans.”

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Gulbranson’s moment of hesitation contains a certain explanatory power. He doesn’t want to say that he can’t live without government. In places like Chisago, the old ethic of self-reliance is real and fierce. But it’s disintegrating under the pressure of several bad economic decades. People in Park Slope, Brooklyn and the north shore of Chicago don’t see their neighbors going on disability when they could work. But the more Gulbranson sees it, the more he resents the government. Perhaps he resents it most of all because he knows he needs it. That’s a political conundrum for both parties, but even more, it’s an American problem.

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