Wall Street Journal profiles MN-8 from Wall Street POV

Aitkin County

After being featured on National Public Radio after Joe Biden’s visit, and other national media outlets, Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District campaign continues to turn heads. Kristina Peterson and Dante Chinni of the Wall Street Journal profiled the district in this Oct. 30 piece “Democrats Lose Their Grip on Voters with Keys to the House.”

The piece, which highlights Aitkin County, focuses on white “blue-collar” workers and how they are trending toward the Republican Party. There are many such people in Minnesota’s Eighth and, as such, that must be the reason the district has become so competitive, according to the story. Two things struck me about the piece:

First, and quite self-servingly, I’ll point out that I was interviewed by Ms. Peterson for this story. We spent a long time talking several weeks ago and then she had some follow-ups this week. She asked good questions. It would appear I didn’t make the cut, but I can understand why. What I told her completely contradicts what appears to be this story’s entire premise. Are some blue collar workers becoming more conservative? Sure. But the main reason you see a huge shift in voting patters in the 8th is because the district has come to include more area that has been conservative for a long time, and new retirees coming from other conservative areas. That would suggest that the district’s changes are mostly from demographic shifts, not just whole-scale rejection of one party’s positions by longtime supporters.

That concept is mentioned later in the story, but only after a couple dozen graphs of older white men complaining about social programs. What dominated the story, and not to the benefit of anyone, is a fixation on the trope that the main problem is poor people and any politicians who endeavor to help them. Peterson took us inside a cafe in Aitkin, the seat of one of the Eighth’s more conservative centrally-located counties.

Federal programs used to be a safety net, said Dan Anderson, a 52-year-old highway construction worker from Duluth, Minn., another town in Mr. Nolan’s district. “Now it’s a way of life for a lot of people.”

Mr. Anderson supports the long-standing federal government programs of Social Security and Medicare. “There are programs we have to have,” he said, but worried the government was overextending its reach. “We’ve got to take care of the needy, it’s just growing into too much.”

A distinction, said Mr. Lundquist, the excavator, is that “we worked and paid for” Social Security and Medicare. Another Birchwood Cafe regular, masonry contractor Carl Kurtz, 62, said he worried federal safety-net programs have allowed people to depend too much on the federal government. “All they’ve done is absolutely destroy the black family.” he said, “and ruined a lot of white families around here, too.”

I have every reason to believe this cringe-worthy exchange was quoted accurately, because I overhear or stumble into conversations like this all over the Iron Range. I’m usually motivated by just wanting a cup of coffee and some damn peace when I encounter these bull sessions, so here’s my response for all those times.

The fixation on social programs (i.e., “welfare) is usually grounded in the belief that these costs cause most the federal budget’s woes. That’s simply not true. Nearly 3/4 of our federal budget is spent on defense (wars and war preparation), Social Security and Medicare. If you want to reduce the federal budget by any significant amount, you must look at cutting these items. Welfare laws have tightened since the Clinton years to the degree that it’s not particularly pleasant or “easy” to be on welfare. While the programs cost a lot of money overall, they patch together a huge problem in this country: a crushingly large forgotten class of poor people separated from success by generational poverty, drug addiction, low wages and/or high rent. Cutting welfare won’t make those problems go away, unless it comes with investments in education and higher wages. You can’t make people go away. Why, not even if you vote Republican every time!

Listen, it hasn’t been a great time for working class people in this country. Not now or for a couple decades. Cost of living has gone up. Wages are stuck. Things like college education and health care have become very expensive. So when a truck driver or independent contractor talks about feeling left behind, that’s 100 percent legitimate. No one likes to think that their hard work is being squandered to benefit lazy people. That’s a human trait. But a lack of empathy and a tendency toward shorthand stereotypes is not becoming of any human, and it sure isn’t becoming of a respected national newspaper. Nor will it solve the problem.

Just as with economic diversification, health care or other tough issues, my question for Eighth District voters on the costs of the social safety net is “which candidate has actual workable solutions to these issues for all our communities and populations?”

You’ve got a couple days. Maybe look that up. But hey, do what you want. It’s a free country.

BONUS COVERAGE: A big week for Aitkin County, as the New York Times ALSO used the A.C. as the centerpiece of a story about states where one party or another had complete control in this last legislative cycle. The State House race between Rep. Joe Radinovich (DFL-Crosby) and Dale Lueck of Aitkin is one that many will be watching Tuesday for who controls the lower chamber of the state legislature.


  1. With some knowledge of the folks in Aitkin and Crow Wing Counties’ rural districts, I have a feeling of grim foreboding; these are good, but simple people that generally avoid thinking about the next decade, let alone the next century. They look around themselves and feel a little ill-at-ease when the neighbors sell off lots; they worry about the drain more people will put on resources (even though most of those “new” people grew up nearby)

    The Republican party has put its best and brightest minds to work harnessing their votes to attempt to create a “permanent majority”…but to what advantage? I doubt they have truly considered the next 3 or 4 generations, either. If they have, they’d realize they are truly in danger of creating a permanent underclass.
    I was once one of those: I voted Republican based on just a few issues like gun control, abortion, and immigration. Then I somehow got a job working for an enlightened firm that recognized almost everyone’s individual talents and strove to create conditions that would increase employee satisfaction, employee retention, and ultimately profitability by feeding that part of the employee’s soul that many employers ignore. It was interesting: the few folks that voluntarily left were also those that had been blessed with the gift of being able to manipulate others and establish themselves in little “micro-fiefdoms”…without any positive effect on the employer’s bottom line.

    Like all good things, that situation came to an end; one owner decided to sell his interest.
    But what I learned has stayed with me. I wish that everyone would have had the opportunity to learn to look past whether their woodpile is going to last until spring. The world doesnt have to be a zero-sum game, doesnt have to be a fight over who controls resources, and we dont have to choose political leaders that are similarly bound by the same narrow outlook we have had imposed on us.

    But I fear we will. Dale Lueck will be elected, his primary job will be to support and affirm the party agenda, even though there will be precious little he can do for the folks back home. The really unfortunate thing is that Dale will soon realize that he has been used by folks in St Paul, that he has a title and an office, but has figuratively sold his soul to Leviathan. What an awful realization.

    I actually feel a little sorry for Dale.

  2. 1) When I see people paying with EBT at the grocer, my thoughts are not “Wow, they are living too good.” Do others?
    2) There is a great sketch by Mitchell and Webb that satirically makes a lot of the points you make here. It’s called “Kill the Poor” and you can find it on YouTube. I think progressives should adopt a more confrontational stance on what works to eliminate poverty. Our policies have flaws, but my God, at least we are living in reality that the problems do not go away if you ignore them.
    3) How do I vote for candidates looking to cut back the military? I tried that with Obama. He added more troops to Afghanistan, more strikes in Pakistan, went back to Iraq. He also opened up new wars in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Let’s be honest. None of our wars work, yet the plausible major candidates in both parties keep thinking we can fix things if only we drop more bombs and keep arming human rights abusers like the Saudis. Search Michael J. Glennon’s article on possible causes in his paper titled “Double Government”.

  3. It’s hard to hear a statement such as “Federal programs used to be a safety net but now it’s a way of life for a lot of people” without feeling the urge to bang my head on the desk. So much illogic. The working folks that still have a job notice there are more people that need a safety net and conclude it’s a choice, not a necessity, that people want to stay in that “way of life” forever, that formerly working independent people suddenly lose their work ethics and become dependent on what is hardly a cushy way to live.

    Ironically the truck driver, construction worker, other working folks and the greater numbers of people who have had to turn to safety nets since the Great Recession have all been left behind as Aaron pointed out. I think blue collar workers and retirees are understandably very fearful about their own present and future economic well being. It’s easier to blame laziness and not wanting to work as reasons people have to rely on social programs. They jump to the conclusion the reason greater numbers of people are using safety nets is because people are becoming more dependent on those programs. Assuming character flaws land people into welfare and a lack of empathy go hand in hand. I don’t know which comes first. I don’t think they allow themselves to imagine they could easily land find themselves in need of assistance even though it’s happened to many of their peers through no fault of their own.

  4. I wish it was as easy as dividing us into two camps, with each one generally holding a certain core set of values. Im sure there are some that fit almost every stereotype…else why would there BE a stereotype.., but perhaps the core truth at the bottom of the story is that we are still primates and base animals whose primary motivations revolve around the self.

    Taking a break from working on my own woodpile today, I caught a story on NPR about a young married woman’s 6-year struggle with telling her husband she’d been raped and delivering the rapist’s child. Not said, but implying hubby’s struggle with having been effectively cuckolded. Fortunately it seems that instead of allowing this challenge to destroy their marriage, the marriage is actually stronger for it. Thinking about THAT story was a struggle for me…I honestly dont know if I could raise someone else’s child with the imagined cartoon image of Brutus grinning at me, asking “how’s your wife…and MY kid”.

    Aside from illustrating my own weakness, perhaps it illustrates who we are as a race.

  5. Ask people, without showing any data, where they think their fed, state and local tax money goes and who they think pays what percentage of their income in taxes. People are always way off. They greatly overestimate the amount spent on social services and things like foreign aid.

  6. I’m a conservative and have been blessed enough in life to be able to give money to many charities. I have a problem with the govt taking my money and giving it to able bodied folks for 4-5-6 yrs. that is no longer helping them that is enslaving them to a poor quality of life…. Best welfare in the world a good job!!!

    • It sometimes takes some help to get to that good job though. Like Mitt Romney borrowing from his parents. I had supportive parents that were able to help me out when i was just starting. But you know when it rains it poor’s with rough breaks and that not everyone has help to get back on their feet. For some people their support network is anything but. Ultimately, I think it is a matter of fairness. Either we have a system that is there for everyone, regardless of how much money they were born with, or we just move towards acknowledging that people born into certain situations have it better in life and more opportunity than others. We admit we have a sort of class system and be done with it.

  7. I was born into a 2nd generation miners family with no money. Neither of my parents went to college and my dad didn’t finish 9th grade. I never finished college but my 3 siblings did, one with a PHD. We all found success with hard work and the notion that life is not going to be easy or fair. If you are able bodied and willing to work (May have to move to N Dakota) , you can get a job and create your own life. Waiting for Govt or someone else to make it perfect for you is fantasy land.

  8. John Ramos says

    That’s something that always bugged me about my relatives growing up. Everybody worked hard, but all the young people acted like they were working their way up from nothing in the world, when in reality we all had an extremely strong support network in the extended family. If necessary, people could go for weeks, even months, unemployed, without any great hardship, because there were always plenty of spare bedrooms, open refrigerators, available vehicles and heated saunas around for them to use. None of that was considered when they scoffed at the underclass that they read about in the newspapers (but saw little of in real life). Everybody thought that they were as bootstrap as could be.

    Life is just a lot easier when you know that all your basic needs will be met.

  9. Never went unemployed since I was 13. Had many lousy jobs but was employed . I’m old now but still have some projects I run. Life is much easier when you have a paycheck coming. I agree on support it makes it easier, that is why my grandparents are so special to me, they came to America, didn’t speak English, no family, no govt welfare and made it on sheer guts and work….. That is not easy…

  10. John Ramos says

    My point wasn’t that people don’t work hard. My point was that the very result of all the hard work, as you say, makes it easier for future generations–but that people tend not to recognize these advantages in their own lives when lecturing the less fortunate that they just need to work harder. Not everybody has a strong family unit. Not everybody had special grandparents. Not everybody had grandparents, or parents, that they knew. Not everybody has a solid home, a reliable vehicle, or savings, and that is simply due to lack of resources, not lack of working hard. You had many of these things; you’re lucky. But you depended on the foundation built by your grandparents as much as people on government benefits depend on those benefits.

    If you’ve never been unemployed since 13, then you’re lucky–I would say bizarrely lucky. The hardest-working people I know are generally in cyclical industries, like construction or logging, where occasional unemployment is the rule. It’s not laziness versus hard work, really; I know lazy rich people, hard-working rich people, lazy poor people, hard-working poor people, and every possible variation in-between. I just don’t think it’s right to lecture whole classes of people on their laziness because you had special grandparents.

  11. So if life throws you a curve ball you just quit and blame circumstances ….. Never understood that one. I was all for welfare in the 60’s for all the reasons you mentioned, my father told me if you pay able bodied men to do nothing you steal their dignity. We argued that one and many other fantasies that I had on how life should be. He said it would become a way of life, I argued a hand up… He said who in Govt are you going to trust to decide who gets money and who doesn’t , how long, how much. He said once you start it you’ll never stop it… He was right . I’m sorry if you didn’t have special people in your life, you truly missed out, because at the end of the day it’s the love of a wife, children, grandchildren and the loving memories of parents and grandparents that matters. There is also a huge pride factor that you were able to work hard, support those same people and build a life… There is dignity in that as my father said there would be…

  12. John Ramos says

    You obviously are not reading my comments at all.

  13. Sorry, I guess what I’m hearing is be thankful if you made it (most are) and if you are not making it is not your fault, it’s circumstances beyond your control….. Maybe I’m hearing you wrong?

  14. John Ramos says

    Um….no, I didn’t say anything like that. You’re reducing my thoughtful comments to boilerplate ideology. I don’t know why. The words are only a few inches up the screen. Just read what I wrote.

  15. We’d all like to have easy solutions to life’s messy issues but you can’t reduce those issues to simplistic belief that one is either against something or for something, the either-or fallacy, ignoring all shades of gray in between.

    Ken, for you, it seems to be either bootstrap or government “welfare” which dismisses the history of government incentivizing hardworking people to succeed and our country to grow. Immigrants to the Iron Range settled land, homesteaded, free due to the Homestead Act of 1862. During the Great Depression there were public works project, building dams, bridges, parks. There were programs such as WPA, CCC camps, farm subsidies, Emergency Farm Mortagage Act, REA delivering electricity. After WWll, there was the GI Act allowing returning soldiers get an education for new careers. Eisenhower championed the interstate highway project. And on and on. Our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents benefited from these government and government/private endeavors directly or indirectly and have through the 20th century. Government, federal and state, should have been doing much more investment in repairing our very old infrastructure since the Recession creating lots of work for construction companies and jobs for construction workers.

    No man is an island.

  16. I’m a big believer in GI bill. They served our country we owe them. WPA and CCC programs were low wage jobs created by Fed/state to give men a chance to work and collect a pay check. The thought of giving able bodied men money for nothing was so foreign that those programs were created. If you noticed those 2 programs ran for a few yrs and then were stopped. Farm subsidies have been a pork program from Govt since the start…. Total joke. The thought of big Govt helping us all is pie in the sky. If you ever ran a business involving mining, logging, oil/gas, you understand the crushing regulations the all loving , caring US govt throws at you. Get the Govt off the back of small business and the oil/gas, mining, logging industry and watch our economy grow.. I explained trickle down in another post. The thing that amazes me is the amount of people who want trickle down by giving our tax money to the Fed and state government . Some how the Libs have decide that is not “trickle down “but an efficient way to redistribute income. Don’t know if you noticed the 1% have grown more in the past 10 yrs than at any other time. Corrupt capitalism is what I call it. Corrupt politicians on both sides picking winners and losers…. That is not how our Govt is supposed to run.

  17. CCC was a lifesaver for 3 million young men and their families, taught them employable skills, morale building, built 800 parks, updated forest fire methods and more and you dismiss this program as a handout? Go read up on the history.

    So now you are concerned about the 1% making out like bandits, corrupt capitalism and then say this is not how government is supposed to run? You are one confused dude. It’s not that hard to find out which people in office or are currently running for office are the ones who most want to keep the money funneling from us to them and to the top 1% and do more harm. Then don’t vote for them. They aren’t exactly trying to keep their priorities secret anymore.

    • I occasionally vote R, but probably only 15% of races with a good choice, and its getting harder all the time. I really struggle with this: I generally agree with the idea that welfare is abused and weakens…but then we have Republican candidates that seem to chase the voters that not only espouse a radical and painful “lesson” for those fallen on hard times, but seem to relish it. Then there are those that seem to enjoy the idea of creating a permanent underclass to exploit.

      I really believe that a significant number of those who are over-reliant on government largesse hve assayed the climate and decided to take the easy way (if they can swing it) when they are convinced they can never get out of poverty, despair and exploitation anyway.

      But the problem I see is that there is still a relatively loud, inconsiderate and boorish cohort attempting to co-opt the message. IMO, conservatives would do well to distance themselves from that contingent, if not actually tell them to shut up. They cause an outsized amount of damage considering their (assumed) small numbers.

  18. I have wondered why more people are not disturbed by how the Republican party has been taken over by not just the inconsiderate and boorish but people who are clearly not playing with a full deck. It’s not only embarrassing but downright frightening.

    I watched the establishment or moderate Republican leaders eagerly welcome and aid the extreme fundamentalist christians and other extremist groups in order to fire up more voters. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to those leaders that they wouldn’t be able to control those groups later on but that is just what has happened. It’s pretty clear those leaders or ex-leaders not only can’t tell them to shut up, they are afraid to.

    Eugene, I wonder what the percentage of people getting assistance are “overly” reliant, able-bodied and taking the “easy” way is. One has to meet a lot of criteria to get assistance depending on the program, income, assets, work requirements, disabilities, etc. There have been many cuts to programs over the years with more limits on who qualifies. For instance, MFIP grants haven’t increased since 1986 while cost of living has doubled.
    Most people on assistance are the elderly poor, disabled and children. About 150,000 kids in MN live in poverty, 70,000 kids live in extreme poverty. Poverty is income below about $23,834 for family of 4, extreme poverty less than $11,917. We know that kids born in poverty have poorer health, education, jobs, etc outcomes in life and are more likely not to be able to climb out of poverty. I don’t think we can afford not to get these kids out of poverty and functioning as well as other kids. So when I hear that the able-bodied shouldn’t be on any kind of welfare, I think what about their kids who are dependent on their parents and assistance? Then when you get down to able-bodied people on assistance with no children, I would bet that those numbers are low, the same people able-bodied people with no children who want to take it “easy” even lower. Able-bodied doesn’t necessarily mean one is mentally healthy either.

    People get very exercised about “too many people on welfare” but I think they hyper-inflate the numbers of actual “lazy bum moochers”.

  19. Kissa, I’ don’t believe in giving able bodied men money for doing nothing, steals their dignity. Funneling money to a state or Fed program by our taxes has never produced wealth and a vibrant economy. If a company cannot make it on its own it shouldn’t get subsidies. Plan and simple. The bailout of the 2 of the big 3 auto companies was a travesty, started by Bush and finished by Obama. Tax payers lost billions on that deal and it was touted by the left as a success. That is how our money is wasted ,then they tell us it was a good deal and people believe them. We are over regulated and over taxed onthe business side in America and somehow they have convinced 50% of the people that is a good thing. Very simple, as I wrote earlier-trickle down works- iron ore is found, evil rich man decides there is profit to be made, he buys equipment, hires miners, moves ore, doctors, lawyers, teachers, service industries come to area, towns are built, it repeats itself and the Range is built. Only reason it works is evil rich guy makes profits for his company and everyone prospers.

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