'Mountain Pride' versus the Welfare State

The federal government is choking our economy while it degrades the character of a proud people.  The food stamp program is purposefully undermining "mountain pride" in Appalachian communities in order to create more wards of the welfare state.

It should be a scandal that the federal government is purposefully weakening a core principle of our value system: self-reliance.  To wit, the feds are praising local bureaucrats for "counteracting" what they call "mountain pride."  These bureaucrats are convincing people who characteristically reject food stamps to instead embrace a culture of dependence.

The full context of those remarks highlights the sordid behavior of our welfare state.  The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has an award called the Hunger Champions Awards.  One of the winners of 2011's award was the Social Services department in Ashe County, North Carolina.  Their accomplishment: an outreach worker found a new way to convince people to take government handouts, even though those people had decided earlier that they wouldn't request the handouts:

Hearing from the outreach worker that benefits could be used to purchase seeds and plants for their gardens turned out to be a very important strategy in counteracting what they described as "mountain pride[.]"

What could be wrong with seeds and plants?  The problem is obvious when one considers that we are drowning in debt because the government wants to pay for every nice idea.

The purpose of food stamps should be to alleviate hunger for those in immediate need who cannot otherwise provide for themselves.  But planting a garden is the work of time; seeds do not feed a hungry mouth.  If one has the wherewithal to plant a garden, then one probably has the capacity to plan, save, or work to afford one's own seeds.  There is absolutely no way that government handout seeds fulfill a proper purpose of food stamps.

But that's a mere policy objection.  What is truly wretched is that the government is purposefully undermining a norm responsible for maintaining stable families and self-sufficient communities.

What is this mountain pride that is such an inconvenience to the welfare state, and who are the people who hold that pride in their hearts?  It's a version of self-reliance -- a combination of stubbornness and self-respect.  It's the pride that comes with knowing that your ancestors turned a wilderness into a home, and made it through hard times without taking handouts.  People with mountain pride are not dragged down by the despicable desire to have someone else take care of them.

I know the culture of maintain pride, because I was raised within it.  My grandfather was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains, within the Appalachians.  He passed mountain pride to my father, and my father passed it to me, even when I was being indoctrinated in college.  Mountain pride is the conviction that you must provide for yourself and your family and never turn to the state when you can provide for yourself, even when providing for yourself entails hardship.

Many successful cultures and peoples share this trait, which is largely inconsistent with government dependence -- in contrast with the infamous cosmopolitan hipsters described in a Salon.com article who are using food stamps to buy "soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream" along with "roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes."  Those hipsters include an art school graduate and a graduate from the University of Chicago.

Salon.com notes that for many 20- to 30-somethings, their "feeling is that anyone who meets the near-poverty level requirements for collecting food stamps shouldn't feel guilty about doing so."  In other words, if you can get away with it, you should feel fine about it, which is the mentality of the looter and the parasite.  Meeting lax government eligibility requirements doesn't mean you need a handout; it just means the government is prepared to give you the handout.  Many people who could provide for themselves with minimal effort are jumping into the eligibility loophole.

But anyone who takes food stamps without being in dire need should feel guilty.  Virtuously avoiding that guilt, and preserving a sense of undefeatable dignity, is what mountain pride is all about.

Interestingly, Democratic Senator James Webb wrote a compelling account of the Appalachian culture, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.  Appalachian people have long been hostile to government power.  We should consider it a point of pride that the culture fostered in those mountains is perpetually in conflict with dependence on the state.  The attitude of fierce independence helps to make America truly distinctive; without it, we'd be no different from every other mediocre Western welfare state.

Of course, the president wants our country to be more like the welfare states that are imploding and decaying across Europe.  Those who share his goals will necessarily need to degrade certain deeply ingrained aspects of our moral character.  To that end, SNAP consciously attacks "beliefs."  The government memos state: "To be effective, it is important that our national and local outreach efforts counter myths about SNAP among those who think they are not eligible or have beliefs that discourage them from enrolling."

The people pushing government handouts are just trying to do what they see as benevolent.  It's just an unavoidable consequence of their hapless compassion that more helpless wards of the welfare state will be created.

The food stamp program should be drastically restricted, and severe limits should be placed on the kinds of food that can be purchased.  Absolute poverty should be the criterion for receiving food stamps.  Sure, spoiled people will have a tougher time, and some truly deserving poor people will not get the helping hand of the state.  But people will survive without the government.  There are helping hands other than the state, and most other non-state helping hands won't detract from our character in the process of "helping" the disadvantaged.  More importantly, the pressure of self-sufficiency will teach people to avoid predicaments where they need a helping hand to begin with.

Also, food stamp cards should be ostentatious and designed to enhancestigma.  Finally, the federal government needs to change the way it officially describes welfare.  For instance, SNAP calls handing out food stamps a "service to clients."  The word "client" should be replaced by the words "aid recipient" or "dependent."

The connection between our economic and moral health is more obvious than ever, and the federal government is stifling our economy while it goes to work degrading the character of a proud people.

John T. Bennett (MA, University of Chicago, Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences '07; JD, Emory University School of Law '11) is a writer living in Atlanta, GA.  Comments, criticism, and news tips are welcome at jthomasbennett@gmail.com.

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