The much-quoted Twentieth Century wit H. L. Mencken’s most quoted quip was has mocking definition of “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
On the other hand, I believe the sage of Baltimore, a vehement anti-Roosevelt conservative, would himself have subscribed to the New Puritanism whose definition is the same one he mocked, plus three words: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy… on my dime.”
The New Puritanism isn’t all that new. The old Puritan mantra — people get the lives they deserve and losers deserve to suffer for their failures — took on its New life as New Deal America tried to build a welfare safety net after the Great Depression.
That’s when fairy tales of wicked welfare queens and unwed birthing machines, conspiracy theories of millions of people who easily could work but didn’t because welfare would support them were born.
The racist component of these nightmare visions was essential: the moocher-villains were almost always people of color.
Like most race-driven fears, welfare-phobia excites revenge fantasies in which the point is to humiliate the “other” — in this case the applicant for some form of public assistance — to make them understand that asking for help is admitting to failure.
The embarrassments and terrors of public assistance are just part of the border wall against a mythical army of welfare spongers. And, the welfare border wall was built by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, albeit in a spirit of bipartisanship with Republican Newt Gingrich.
One of my hopes for post-pandemic politics is that the widespread experience having been in need and having gotten some help from the government will kill off the New Puritanism, will reduce the widespread fear that somewhere, someone receiving public assistance might be happy.
Eli Hager is a reporter covering issues affecting children and teens in the Southwest. He joined ProPublica from the Marshall Project, where as a staff writer for six years he focused primarily on juvenile justice, family court, foster care, schools and other issues affecting youth. A two-time Livingston Award finalist and three-time finalist for the Education Writers Association’s national award, his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Guardian, New York Magazine, USA Today, NPR and elsewhere.
Hager’s investigation of juvenile justice agencies that bill parents for their children’s incarceration led to the practice being banned in Philadelphia the day after the story published and later statewide in California. After publishing a yearlong investigation of deaths, crashes, escapes and abuses on for-profit prisoner transport vans, the Justice Department launched a probe of the industry. Most recently, his investigation of “short-stayers” in New Mexico — kids taken from their families by police and placed in foster care only to be returned days later because the removal was unnecessary — helped prompt legislation that will require social workers, not cops, to perform all child removals. Hager is based in Phoenix.