The Corner

Brittany vs. Julia

On the Obama-Biden campaign’s website, the Letter of the Week is from a woman named Brittany. She writes:

Hello! My name is Brittany and I live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I am 25 years old (but I will be 26 on October 3rd!). I am a registered Democrat and I have been voting since I was 18. I am one of the 47% of Americans who fall under Mitt Romney’s definition of “entitled” and “unable to take responsibility for my life.” I have Down syndrome.

There is so much that is heinous about Brittany being used for political gain in this way, but let’s start with the obvious thing, which is that neither Mitt Romney nor anybody running for office under the Republican banner is suggesting doing anything that would hurt her.

I have spent a lot of time around people with Down Syndrome. My mother is a teacher who specializes in teaching children with special needs, my sister has gone down that route, too, and I used to volunteer at the centers in which they teach. As Brittany says, she is “unable to take responsibility” for her life. (Or, at least, full responsibility. Her letter shows that she’s rather admirable.) Fair enough. But outside of the most feverishly conceived cartoon conservatives, who exactly resents this fact? America enjoys a bipartisan agreement that children, elderly people, and the disabled should be protected — and that government has a role to play in that care. The implication that Brittany is akin to those who are dependent on government by choice, habit, or design should be rejected with extreme prejudice — not least for Brittany’s sake. Suffice it to say that whatever point Romney was trying to make with his “47 percent” line, it was not that the state should cut off people with disabilities.

Now, there is a key disagreement in this country as to how people who are able to help themselves should be treated. Democrats and Republicans have starkly different attitudes toward both the efficacy of government welfare and the role of civil society in solving social problems and, if anything, the two parties are moving further apart from one another. Regardless of where one comes down on that debate, however, there is a world — a universe, perhaps — of difference between Brittany and Julia, the Obama campaign’s bizarre vision for the life of an American everywoman who is helped by Washington at every step of her development. It is the difference, as my colleague Dan Foster aptly puts it, between a cradle to grave welfare state and a cradle and grave welfare state. Conservatives are fine with the latter, and not with the former.#more#

Brittany genuinely needs help because, in many spheres, she is unable to help herself:

I started working part-time in 2004 when I was in high school. I graduated in 2008 and have worked at that job ever since. My employer receives money from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare so that I can work, and the public transportation people receive money from them to take me back and forth to work. My mother applied for Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) for me when I was 19. I really want to make lots of money and have a hot tub someday, but SSI subtracts my paychecks from my SSI benefits, so I don’t have much to put into a savings account.

To buy the Obama campaign’s implication, you have to believe that conservatives are sitting at home reading that and saying, “Why, what a scrounger!” One suspects that such a belief is vital to the self-image of liberals, who would have a hard time placing themselves on the moral spectrum were they to be deprived of the conceit that Republicans are scheming to murder the poor and throw the disabled and elderly out onto the cold streets. Still, at the risk of collapsing some worldviews: It’s not true.

To illustrate the difference, I might drawn an analogy with health care. In Britain, the National Health Service is a blanket single-payer system that covers everybody — whether they like it or not — and is funded through general taxation. When it was founded, socialist stalwart Aneurin Bevan said that if a “bedpan was dropped” in a British hospital, the “reverberations would echo around Whitehall.” (“Whitehall” is the British metonym for “government” and “bureaucracy.”) That’s a lot of reverberation for one government to hear. Conversely, in the United States — at least up until now — the government has provided health-care services only for the elderly, the poor, and for those who really cannot look after themselves. By and large, it has drawn the line at those who could, and this has met with general approval. As far as health care was concerned, the American state has been a net into which one could drop, but not a net that enveloped everybody regardless of their situation. 

Conservatives tend to back this. It really is one thing to look at old or poor people and say “you cannot look after yourself,” and quite another to say it to an entire country — especially a republic founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and operating under a constitution that begins, “We the People.” Likewise, I would venture that it is one thing to look at Brittany and to agree that she needs some assistance, and quite another to extrapolate this principle out to the country at large. Judging by its rhetoric, the Obama campaign lives in a heady twilight zone, in which the president is a moderate who advocates for limited government while the Republican ticket is a champion for anarchy. That the campaign could so casually imply that Romney-Ryan’s definition of the self-reliant would include those such as Brittany is not just intellectually dishonest but sufficiently deranged to demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding.

It is all the more silly given that Brittany does not even fall within the purview of Romney’s ill-advised remarks. She writes:

I am now working for a store, folding clothes and doing returns. I like my job a lot! I make $4.98 an hour and I am allowed to work 25-30 hours a week (I have paid $542.72 in federal, FICA, state, and city taxes this year as of August 31st).

Whatever Romney meant by the term, Brittany is not a 47-percenter. Instead, if Brittany belongs to any percentage-based identity group, it is to the 10 percent of Americans with Down Syndrome who make it past the abortion clinic. 

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