Into the welfare state’s heart of darkness
By Mencken’s Ghost
Oct. 17, 2012
This is a story about a journey into
darkness, but unlike Joseph Conrad’s Heart
of Darkness, it is a true story about a real place, a place that is
not a metaphor but a microcosm, a microcosm of the United States.
If you want to know where the USA is headed,
then relive the journey with me.
President Barack Obama, who learned at
Harvard to celebrate diversity and to be sensitive to different cultures and socioeconomic
classes, spoke of the inhabitants of the place as “bitter” people who “cling to
guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
Ironically, a majority of the inhabitants
of the place voted for Obama and will probably vote for him again.
What is the place? It is rural Pennsylvania.
Actually, it is two Penn. towns where my in-laws live, where
their forebears settled in the early 20th century, and where I recently
visited. One is the town of Bradford (pop.
8,770) in the northwestern part of the state, about 60 miles south of Buffalo. The other is
Westline, a small hamlet of about 40 homes and hunting cabins nestled in a
valley in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, about 15 miles south of
Yes, the locals do indeed like guns and
hunting. That’s why doors aren’t locked in Westline and why the school bus
used to stop decades ago to give armed hunters a lift back into town. Imagine
if that happened today: The national news would run video footage for days of
SWAT helicopters and armored personnel carriers surrounding the school bus.
Guns and hunting are not abstractions in
the two towns. Nor are the welfare state, the entitlement state, and the
regulatory state, because the classes live close together and rich and poor
families have known each other for generations. Unlike the ruling elites in New York’s Upper East Side, in Santa
Barbara, in Georgetown,
or in the faculty echo chamber at Harvard, the towns’ residents see up close
and personal the deleterious effects of decades of government intervention in
the economy and in people’s lives.
Case in point:
Observing one of the residents of the
small hamlet of Westline mowing nearby lawns on a riding lawn mower for over
four hours, I remarked to my father-in-law that the neighbor sure had a lot of
energy. Sighing in exasperation, he explained that the neighbor picks up
pocket money from mowing and other odd jobs to supplement her Social Security
Disability (SSI) payments. In other words, although she is physically able to
cut lawns, she has been deemed by our munificent government to be too disabled
to work. She isn’t expected to even answer phones in a government office or do
clerical work for the government from her home computer in exchange for what
she receives from her taxpaying neighbors.
She is not an abstraction to my
father-in-law. She is flesh-and-blood daily reminder to him of where his taxes
are going. His taxes help to support her, although he lives in a very modest,
century-old frame house that didn’t even have central heat until a few years
There are many other daily reminders,
including the single mom on welfare with two children whose daddy skedaddled
soon after they were born out of wedlock, the retired school teacher who gets
over $30,000 per annum from the state to care for two foster children, a guy
who got state money to fix up his decrepit house because he didn’t have the
initiative to do it himself, and other residents who are on disability or some
form of welfare. Of course, scores of residents are retired and on Social
Security and Medicare.
As my father-in-law gave example after example of residents receiving government benefits, I wondered if anyone in the town worked. Actually, some do, but they are in the minority.
Among their numbers are well-off
residents who put in 20 years at one government agency to qualify for a pension
and medical benefits and are now working for another government agency. They
are like leeches that suck one host dry and jump to another host.
It’s a similar story in the larger town
which is my wife’s hometown and the current home of my brother- and
The town used to be a thriving industrial
center of factories, refineries and wood product companies, due to the area
being blessed with oil, timber, water, and hard-working immigrant labor. It
was settled by Swedish, Scots-Irish and Italian immigrants--poor people who
left their families and mother countries, crossed an ocean with all of their
possessions in a couple of valises, and somehow traveled from Ellis Island to
find work in out-of-the-way Bradford, where they learned to get along without
the benefit of diversity programs, community organizers, and English as a
Since then, much of the industry has been
driven away by rapacious unions, confiscatory taxes, oppressive regulations,
and environmental zealotry. The new industries are a federal prison, a
regional hospital that survives on Medicare and Medicaid, a satellite campus of
the University of Pittsburgh with fancy new buildings courtesy of Penn.
taxpayers, various government-funded redevelopment agencies that keep
bureaucrats employed but do little to bring back sustainable prosperity and self-reliance,
a housing authority that distributes state and federal housing money, and
various social agencies, including what seems like a disproportionate number of
behavioral health centers.
As real work has given way to
government-dependent work and subsidized loafing, industriousness, thriftiness,
independence, and community-mindedness have given way to five of the Seven
Deadly Sins: lust, sloth, gluttony, greed, and envy.
No doubt, the local branch of the Univ. of Pittsburgh, like most universities
across the nation, indoctrinates students in the value of “community,” which is
an Orwellian term for neo-Marxism. For sure, students aren’t taught how the
government has displaced real community values. Sadly, when my father-in-law’s
generation is gone, no one will be left to tell them what a real community was
People used to help their neighbors
through churches and such fraternal and charitable organizations as the Rotary,
the Knights of Columbus, the VFW, and the Legion; now they sit at home in front
of their big-screen TVs, yakking on their cellphones while waiting for the
government Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Modest homes and yards used
to be well maintained and tidy; now they are dilapidated, with broken-down
sofas on front porches, trash in yards, and pit bulls tied to stakes. Men and
women of modest means used to care about their dress and personal grooming; now
obese and slovenly people with grotesque tattoos can be seen waddling and
wandering aimlessly. Parents stayed married and sacrificed their own
self-actualization for the benefit of their kids and made sure that the kids
behaved in school; now children from single-parent families bring their
behavioral and learning problems to school instead of bringing their lunches in
paper bags, as their great-grandparents did.
Leftists would say that the social decay
is the result of deindustrialization and falling wages and not the result of
the bad of government driving out the good of volunteerism and neighborliness.
What they won’t say is that in today’s dollars, the average annual wage in
manufacturing in 1910 was less than $20,000, at a time when women were not in
the workforce and didn’t supplement family income. They also won’t say that
taxes were probably a tenth of today’s confiscatory levels.
This is not to suggest that people lived
in utopia back then, for problems abounded. But they were not heading for
dystopia, as they are today.
Naturally, today’s social decay has
triggered the Pavlovian response from the education industry for smaller
classes, more classroom aides, free breakfasts in addition to free lunches, and
drugs for the inattentive.
Local schools have state-of-the art
facilities but are run by the bureaucratic mindset of the state, which throws
money at problems instead of admitting that it has caused the problems in the
first place. As an exhibit of misplaced priorities, the local high school
recently spent $1 million to install artificial turf in the football stadium. Rome had the Coliseum to keep the masses distracted from
what their rulers were doing to them; Bradford
has a football stadium with plastic grass.
During my visit, the local newspaper, the
Bradford Era, ran a front-page
story that was so bizarre that I read it twice to make sure it wasn’t a
parody. It seems that the Bradford hospital is partnering with the Bradford school district to give a free book each year
for five years to the parents of children born at the hospital when they return
to the hospital for their annual “well-child” checkups. (The story did not say
who pays for the checkups.)
The harebrained idea is to encourage
parents to read to their child as a way of developing the child’s reading and
literacy skills. Only a committee of nincompoops with a pot of other people’s
money or high on pot could have come up with this foolishness.
That’s close to the truth. The money
came from the federal government’s Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy
Program and was part of an $897,250 grant to the school district to improve
literacy. Since the median household income in Bradford
is about $31,000, the grant of $897,250 is equal to the annual income of 29
families. Or to put it another way, the entire income of 29 families would
have to be confiscated to fund the grant.
has a very nice public library.
Let’s end our journey into darkness with some thoughts about returning prosperity to the residents of Bradford and Westline.
The first thought is that shale drilling has brought an economic boon to within a few-hours drive from the two towns. Given that the forebears of the residents crossed an ocean for economic opportunity, it would seem that their progeny could move a few hours away for economic opportunity. But that would require cutting the shackles of the welfare state.
The second thought is that a couple of
refineries continue to operate in the middle of Bradford,
close to the home where my wife grew up and where she smelled the sweet odor of
crude being refined and heard the rumble of tank cars on the nearby railroad
tracks. Once owned by Kendall Oil, the refineries are now owned by small-time
operators and produce lubricants.
Since there is a severe shortage of
refineries in the United
States, especially for the production of
gasoline, why not expand the refineries?
The answer is that it probably would be
nearly impossible to do so, given today’s environmental hyperbole and
hysteria--in spite of the fact that epidemiological studies have shown that
there is not an above-average incidence of disease in the town after more than
a century of oil drilling and refining.
At the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator in the novella, Marlow, hears the dying station agent Kurtz whisper, “The horror! The horror!” That’s what I whispered in rural Penn. as I saw where the nation is headed.
_______________Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.