How the New York Times got the Chisago County entitlements story

New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum

At least among the local chattering class, the New York Times’ big Sunday front-pager on Chisago County – “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It” – got attention. To more than a few liberals, the story showcased hypocrisy in Cravaack Country –government haters increasingly leeching off the entity they vote repeatedly to cut. To some, the provocative frame highlighted the local media’s timidity.

How the Times came to land in Minnesota begins with an under-reported dataset.

Robert Gebeloff, the Times’ database projects editor, had been assigned to unearth new sources for demographics stories. “Most of the time, coverage is based on data put out by the Census Bureau,” Gebeloff says. “We came upon the Bureau of Economic Analysis.”

Journalists typically rely on BEA numbers for national stories like Gross Domestic Product changes. However, Gebeloff says the agency has a cache of local data reporters almost never use.

Unlike the Census Bureau, which reports earned income, “The BEA adds to that all this entitlement money,” he explains. “That led us to the relationships between different kinds of income. Sure enough, it popped out pretty clearly that the biggest increase in the components of income was the value of entitlements.”

Beating out Texas and Arizona

Using the BEA’s interactive database, raw files, and Microsoft Access, Gebeloff produced “lists and lists of counties.” He eliminated perennially poor places, like Appalachia, and places with major events, like a big plant closure.

“The usual way journalists do a story like this is what I call the ‘mostest’ place – where has it changed the most, or the biggest share,” Gebeloff explains. “We finally hit upon this idea of not finding a ‘mostest,’ but a typical example.”

The Times piece was nearly datelined suburban Arizona, or Austin, Texas. Chisago “won” because its share of income from government and other baseline numbers most closely met national averages.

Adds Gebeloff, “Chisago was interesting because it was an outer-ring suburb, which is kind of typically American for the last 20 years, it had for the most part been economically healthy for a long while, and actually had a very low level of dependency on government benefits. But it had changed a lot, with no simple explanation except this is changing the way America is changing.”

Gebeloff – who says he eventually built an internal MySQL database for Times collaborators  – worked only on Chisago and one other project since the project kicked into high gear in October. When original reporter David Leonhardt was promoted to D.C. bureau chief, he assigned Binyamin Appelbaum, whose early reporting on the mortgage crisis made him a 2008 Pulitzer finalist.

‘Here come the Times to say people are hypocrites’

Appelbaum  – who estimates he spent month’s time on the story – visited Chisago for a week in November.

“I came in without leads of any kind – the only thing I’d booked in advance was the hotel,” he says. “I’d done this story most often in the Sun Belt, so I was counting on finding more people outside, and the daylight didn’t last as long. That was a miscalculation on my part!”

He stopped in convenience stores, restaurants and small businesses, and by week’s end (with a videographer in tow) pastors were helping him find parishioners and an American Legion post manager tipped him to bar hours that were patron-rich.

Yes, some in Cravaack country walked the other way when approached by a Timesman. “That’s something you get used to, working here,” Appelbaum allows. “But really, a strikingly small share of people I approached fell into that category. I was really impressed by how willing and ready people were to talk, and how top-of-mind this was as an issue.”

Appelbaum insists the point of the story was not hypocrisy. “Absolutely not. I think that’s a very common sort of first-blush reaction – ‘Oh, here comes the Times to say people are hypocrites.’

“The point of the story was to hold up a mirror to the middle class. Some people look down and see the poor as the source of the nation’s problems; some people look up and see the rich. The reality is, part of the nation’s problem is the middle class.”

One of the Times’ most compelling charts – showing the entitlement share for the bottom fifth plunging from 54 percent to 40 percent in a quarter-century as the top three-fifths rose – underscores that point.

Gebeloff acknowledges, “We wanted to incorporate how places are voting; how prominent that is in the story, I’ll leave up to readers. But the point of the story is, modern entitlement spending isn’t just about dumping money into cities, it’s about everybody.

“If you’re conservative, it proves the point we’re spending too much money and we need to reform the spending.”

The conservative toe-hold

Indeed, an unmistakable takeaway is that entitlement spending – especially Medicare – is at near-runaway levels higher taxation seems unlikely to cover. At the right-blog Power Line, Steven Hayward makes exactly this point.

However, the “hypocrisy” read isn’t off-base. The headline – “Even Critics of Safety Net” – practically begs it, even if some interviewees pledged to give up at least a portion of their benefits.

Try to imagine the mirror image: “Even Supporters of Safety Net Decreasingly Depend On It.” Might be true of rich guys like Warren Buffet, but there are no internal contradictions there. 

Chisago may not have been a “mostest” sort of place, but emphasizing conservatives was a “mostest” sort of angle.

Still, insists Appelbaum, “The point of this story was to go to a middle-class place and say to the people there, set aside whatever you think of the rich, whatever you think of the poor, what do you think about you? Your relationship with the government? Do you want to pay more? Do you want to get less?

“It was a process for people. I think all of our first responses tend to be, I would like the government to fix the problems it has in other places. If I had infinite space, more of this story would be devoted to the amount of that that I heard, because that’s kind of missing from these transcripts of these portraits. Everyone really does begin there, by saying, ‘The problem is other people.’ Let’s stipulate that’s true – what about you? Do you accept there are problems with your relationship with the government, and what do you want to do about that? That’s what the story is all about.”

Even the New Yorker’s George Packer – who noted the “weird exactness” of entitlement hot zones to conservative places – came away sympathetic to interviewees like Ki Gulbranson, who “resents [government] most of all because he knows he needs it.”

The local reaction – and Cravaack non-reaction

Appelbaum has heard “in passing” from a couple of Chisago interviewees, without blowback. Before the story ran, he read each interviewee their quotes and talked them about how they could be characterized. “I wanted to provide picture of them that was fair, that they would recognize,” Appelbaum says.

Brian Qualley, the conservative tattoo parlor operator quoted in the piece, says Appelbaum’s representation of his entitlement views was “pretty darn close.”

The tattooist says the story’s paraphrase that some customers “paid with money from government disability checks” was wrong. “I never had anyone do that,” Qualley states. “I said I’ve heard of people who have done it. I was thinking of that Channel 5 report about people paying for tattoos with EBT cards.”

That KSTP report showed a tattooist encouraging EBT fraud. However, beneficiaries can use the cash portion of their benefits for anything, though the station did not provide an example. MPR later criticized other elements of the story.

For his part, Appelbaum stands by the item, saying Qualley offered the information in two separate interviews, on tape.

Politically, one of the story’s more interesting aspects was “Searching for Chip,” the repeated refusal of the area’s Republican Congressman, Chip Cravaack, to comment on the critic/dependent dynamic.

“I tried a lot,” Appelbaum says. “I had, early on in this process, a couple of long conversations with his office about what we were doing, and why we hoped to speak with him. They promised to get back to us and never did. I followed up several times, as recently as the Friday before the story ran, and they clearly made a decision not to participate.”

Cravaack’s office did not return a MinnPost call for comment.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Leier on 02/16/2012 - 09:24 am.

    The word entitlements

    Those who use the word “entitlements” to describe Social Security and Medicare are using an anti-SS & anti-Medicare frame. I paid for my SS through 50 years of FICA payments and my Medicare through more than 40 years of FICA taxes. I bought and paid for those benefits! To call the “entitlements” is to imply a gift of some sort.

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 02/16/2012 - 10:05 am.

      For what it’s worth …

      It’s a fair point that some part of this is fee-for-service-like.

      However, the Times noted that Medicare premiums don’t begin to cover Medicare expenses (the collective ratio is 1:3, I believe). So yes, there’s a component that’s not an entitlement, but one that is. Not sure of the exact ratio for Social Security – I think that’s narrower. But since it’s based on current workers paying for past ones, you could argue there’s an entitlement aspect.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 02/16/2012 - 09:46 am.

    i’m still waiting for the story about people who think taxes need to be higher while taking every deduction, credit and tax reduction opportunity for themselves. but that data is probably much tougher to find.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/16/2012 - 11:15 am.

      Why?

      You’ve raised this question before, and I honestly don’t understand your point.

      The current mania for “balance” in news reporting—anything arguably negative about an individual or group has to be countered by something equally negative about an opposing person or group—is one of the many factors that have neutered responsible, forceful journalism in this country. Demanding accuracy is one thing, but insisting on balance in all things is to wallow in irrelevance. Think of it this way: Would you expect an article about anti-Semitism to include a reference to Bugsy Siegel or Meyer Lansky, for “balance?”

      For this story, asking for a story about those who call for higher taxes makes no sense, except as a pointed way of saying “nyah, nyah, you stink, too.” The national debate, such as it is, is being driven by those who demand spending cuts. Fair enough, let’s debate what those cuts should be, and how deep to make them. Part of that debate should be how those cuts will affect the people who receive the benefits. Instead of morphing all recipients of money from the federal government into faceless categories like “federal employees” or “welfare cheats,” let’s give them names and faces. Are they small government fans? Okay, let’s ask them how they feel about losing their share of the budget. Are they okay with it? What do they think? Is this really hypocrisy or is it cognitive dissonance?

      The Time article raised worthwhile questions and, to my mind, explored them in a fair, non-judgmental way. I don’t know what more we would want from a news outlet.

    • Submitted by Chris McGreevy on 02/17/2012 - 10:15 am.

      rejected Your flawed logic

      Perhaps you don’t understand but someone who advocates for higer marginal tax rates surely realizes that may involve paying higher taxes.

      The NYT article highlights the dissonance of those who advocate for cuts in programs that they themselves rely on, with no idea how they will make up the difference. If I say I want the Bush tax cuts to expire, I’m well aware that will involve paying higher taxes, which is fine with me.

      The logic of your snarky retort works only if the Tea Partiers who are eligible for medicare, ss, unemployment insurance, etc. don’t take their benefits.

  3. Submitted by Hal Davis on 02/16/2012 - 10:04 am.

    Frame

    The Times framed the story thusly:

    ==insists Appelbaum, “The point of this story was to go to a middle-class place and say to the people there, set aside whatever you think of the rich, whatever you think of the poor, what do you think about you? Your relationship with the government? Do you want to pay more? Do you want to get less? … Do you accept there are problems with your relationship with the government, and what do you want to do about that? That’s what the story is all about.”==

    If the person did not “accept there are problems with your relationship with the government,” did the interview continue?

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 02/16/2012 - 10:06 am.

    Beryl John-Knudson

    Medicine, is too often, the big bleeder: too often defining survival , whatever the citizens ultra-conservative, contradictory confessions?

    Seems there should be a follow-up article with the same extensive research involved. Would like to see activist journalists explore a parallel study of the Hippocratic Oath, that ancient creed…is it essentially hypocritical in substance today, and in need of at least, invasive reflection?

    I suggest extensive research be applied to the lowly physician and the medical institutions who heal the sick, yet do directly or indirectly bleed the patients bank account?

    …Administrators, corporate sponsors, and medical doctor-hood who support the system by their silence or otherwise – possibly in order to survive as followers within a profit directed system or, to simply survive in a manner they have accepted?

    Are their too few activists within the medical community ready to stick their profession-on-the-line accepting, the excessive profits as unacceptable…and thus go, too often unquestioned?

    All I can say with little positive expectations…physician etc, heal thyself’?

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/16/2012 - 10:37 am.

    We Can’t Look in the Mirror

    It is a sad reality that far too many of us, especially “conservatives” and the politicians who seek their support with their favored “dog whistle” appeals,

    such as Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamp president”,…

    thereby invoking his conservative, mostly-white supporter’s belief that most government spending goes to lazy black people,…

    (when, in reality, by Newt’s criteria, George W. Bush was the food stamp president and the majority of EBT recipients are white),…

    and thereby assisting them in their refusal to look in the mirror to realize that it is they, themselves, who are the greatest recipients of federal aid and federal spending,…

    enable those who inevitably push us in the direction that “W” took us:

    tax cuts for the fabulously wealthy,…

    government giveaways and subsidies to already-fabulously profitable enterprises, primarily energy and defense-related,…

    statements that “deficits don’t matter” (because, of course they’re supporting the crony contracts and sweetheart deals that pad the pockets of the already wealthy I.E. those who are “deserving” of rewards for their “success”),…

    and economic/financial deregulation which led to the stripping from the middle class of massive portions of their income, their assets, their property, their ability to procure adequate healthcare, and any hope they ever had of a comfortable retirement,…

    all of which led to the current high levels of people dependent on the government in Chisago County and the rest of the nation.

    If our “conservative” friends had the ability and courage to look in the mirror, they might be able to see that the “steal from everyone else in order to enrich the rich” polices produced by the politicians to whose dogwhistle appeals they have responded,…

    have produced EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE results from those they believed and were promised they would produce.

    Unless and until ALL Americans gain the ability to look in the mirror and seek to see clearly whether we, ourselves, are part of the problem or part of the solution…

    (which will depend very much on our ability to honestly look at what “the problem” is)…

    we will continue to fall prey to politicians who, by purpose and design, take us in exactly the opposite direction than what we thought they were promising us,…

    further impoverishing the rest of us in order to enrich themselves and their already-wealthy cronies.

    The more rapidly the 99% can come to realize that we’re all in this together and that our enemy is not each other, but the 1%, the more rapidly we will begin to be able to honestly evaluate and devise useful solutions to our nations’ problems.

  6. Submitted by Lynda McDonnell on 02/16/2012 - 11:10 am.

    Thanks.

    What a thoughtful dissection of how the Times piece came to be. With luck, more journalists will look at the the BEA stats, and editors will be reminded of the time and smarts required to do this sort of fresh and important reporting. Thanks, David.

  7. Submitted by Tony Carideo on 02/16/2012 - 12:19 pm.

    Totally off point, but

    What I can’t understand is how the national media can beat our local publications with not one story–the NYT piece, which was excellent–but a moving piece in The Rolling Stone about the complex backstory and human tragedy behind the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s so-called LGBT neutrality policy.

    I know we can’t expect our local media to get EVERY story that’s out there, but this one–including a wrenching human element not to mention the tyranny of a few anti-gay zealots who forced this policy through, if the story is to be believed–seems to have been missed by the local press when it was crying out to be told in a compelling and comprehensive way.

    • Submitted by r batnes on 02/16/2012 - 06:40 pm.

      Excellent point, Tony. I see lots of human interest stories, but very little hard edged reporting. In the national media, it’s even worse. I see politicians say the most outrageous things, especially on Sunday mornings, and they’re rarely, if ever, challenged. Where’s Mike Wallace when you need him?

    • Submitted by Clay Williams on 02/17/2012 - 03:01 pm.

      And the Boogard story, and the Cargill contaminated beef story…
      With diminished resources going to reporting all we’re getting locally is fluff and reworded press releases from mainstream media.

  8. Submitted by Ross Williams on 02/16/2012 - 02:17 pm.

    Did they get the story right?

    I don’t think so. According to opinion surveys, the typical Tea Party member is over 40 with an above median income. Their kids aren’t getting free lunches and they aren’t senior citizens whose only income is a social security check. They aren’t people struggling to get by. Whether Chisago County is “middle class’ or not, many of the interviews were with people who aren’t. They may identify themselves as middle class, but their income identifies them as poor. Of course, the “poor” in popular lexicon are not white suburbanites.

    Its pretty clear the New York Times set out to tell a story and found people who fit. We all heard the line “government, hands off my medicare”. Its clear that there are a lot of people who rely on government who resent the fact that they need to rely on government. There are people who get benefits but resent the benefits that go to others.

    What the New York Times found was the same poor, conservative rural voters they would have found in small towns 40 years ago. They both resent government and depend on it. They resent people who depend on government even more than they do. But they are not the core of the Tea Party or the ideological conservatives that are setting the agenda for the Republican party. They don’t know it because they think of themselves as middle class, but they are the targets as much as the “poor”.

    • Submitted by James Blum on 02/16/2012 - 06:11 pm.

      Yes, I think they did get the story right

      George Packer, in the New Yorker, responding to the NY Times story, writes “A map showing areas of greatest reliance on public benefits corresponds with weird exactness to the map of red America: the South, Appalachia, and rural areas in general.” One person identified in the story, Ki Gulbranson, has an income of $39,000 which, while less than the median US income of $46,326 still probably qualifies his household as middle class. Mr. Gulbranson appears to consider himself in the middle class. Further, it’s clear that it isn’t just “poor, conservative rural voters” that receive, and depend upon, federal entitlements. Our own Rep. Bachmann is a high-profile example of a Minnesotan who is most definitely NOT middle class, rails publicly against entitlements, and yet takes them herself.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 02/16/2012 - 09:48 pm.

    “Taking welfare and hating it”

    Nice follow-up Dave. The economist has a related piece in it’s “Democracy in America” blog as well.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2012/02/americas-safety-net

  10. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/17/2012 - 09:42 am.

    Taking “entitlements” and hating it

    It’s a shame that the word “entitlements” was used by some government bean-counter to describe the category of “fixed, recurring expenditures” by the government. The right has a gifted way of putting down anyone and anything that doesn’t meet its twisted view of reality. Of which this article makes me wonder if this twisted view of reality doesn’t emanate from within. It’s a sad truth that many people don’t despise others as much as they despise themselves or what they view as themselves. It strikes me that a lot of the right’s vitriol is aimed at things they are most guilty of. People who think less of themselves because they accept “entitlements” which makes them despicable in their own eyes are not going to have much empathy for others in the same predicament.

    • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 02/17/2012 - 08:51 pm.

      It would be a step in the right direction if people stopped the farce of calling Social Security “welfare”.

      Remember, SS is taxable income.

      What is humiliating is having money taken from employers and from workers paychecks for 40-50+ years and then having to fight to get the money back.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/17/2012 - 10:03 am.

    @ David, and Bruce Leier:

    They end up being labeled “entitlements” because most of us who receive them feel as Bruce does, that we’re “entitled” to them because we’ve “paid for them.”

    In fact, as David pointed out in his own comment, we pay for only a portion of Medicare benefits, and Social Security provides an even more pointed illustration. A careful look at the benefit statement that Social Security sends out will likely show that, if Bruce’s situation is reasonably typical of most, he will have collected ALL of his contributions to Social Security, as well as those of his employer(s), in about 3 years after he retires. Three years…

    The typical monthly Social Security benefit *far* exceeds the typical monthly contribution made by the typical worker and the typical employer. There will be the occasional exception and odd circumstance, but most of the time, anything he collects after 3 years is coming from the Social Security Trust Fund, and is essentially money going to him from the wages of those who are currently working. Most of us – the vast majority of us – are not wealthy enough, and do not have enough accumulated capital to actually fund a “retirement” that will support us in material terms at anything close to the level we became accustomed to while we were working. Anyone who’s been retired, and collecting Social Security for more than 3 years, is genuinely “on the dole,” and is being supported by the wages of younger workers who are still on the job and paying Social Security taxes.

    The notion that “I’ve earned what I’m collecting” is quite true – for those first 3 years. After that, it’s patently false. I’m old enough to make use of Medicare, and I collect Social Security, but because I’ve been using them for more than 3 years, I think of them basically as gifts that I’m enormously grateful for, not something I’m entitled to. That “entitlement” attitude went away when I realized that I’d already collected all that I’d contributed, and was now living on someone else’s dime…

  12. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/17/2012 - 09:43 pm.

    “Entitlements” one more time

    Until someone shows the memo that says otherwise, I’ll believe the word “entitlements” got there by some bureaucrat using accountese to describe a portion of the budget on which Congress does not act. The right has cleverly turned an otherwise neutral word into a polarizing word by playing on the ambiguity of “entitled” as “having a right to something” versus ” feeling you have a right to something” (i.e, “feeling entitled” as in “the world owes me a living” entitled).. Just think of what they’ve tried to do to the word “liberal”.

    People are “entitled” to SS because the law says they “have a right” to whatever the law says they can be paid. There is a sort of presumption or trust that this is equitable and fair even if the person did not pay dollar per dollar “into the system.” People are not “entitled” to it because they feel the world “owes them a living.”

    I agree with Ray’s point but I think by conceding that one only get three years into what one pays in plays into the right wing propaganda lie. I made $3.30/hour in 1968 working on the Ford assembly line. Part of my wage went to Social Security to support retirees who probably made 25 cents/hour if they had a job in the 1930’s or 1940’s. Does that mean the people who paid into SS when they were paid 25 cents an hour in the 1940’s only were “entitled” to three years of benefits? I think not. There is a question of what we call “inflation” and “purchasing power” which the law had adjusted in recognition of the fact that $1 in 2012 does not buy what it bought in 1936 and vice versa that 25 cents will not buy in 2012 what it bought in 1936.

    Am I “entitled” to receive SS even though it will exceed what I paid n at $3.30.hour. You’d better believe it because the law says so. I’d go so far as to say I have a contractual right to it. Even if I might feel the world owes me a living, I’m not going to get any more than the law allows.

  13. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 02/19/2012 - 10:52 am.

    Sunday morning coming down…

    Second thoughts; considering the pathology of the Far Right; Tea party advocates and followers, whomever, on a sunny Sunday morning, my favorite Aunt Berta says..

    .”Probably God is not dead, dear”, her mouth stuffed with clothes pins as she hangs out Uncle Eric’s long johns (she washes on Sundays not Mondays)…”but after listening to the voices these days of ultra -conservatives who claim they represent him, he probably wishes HE were.”

    Uncle Eric’s stiff-frozen underwear swing in sympathetic affirmation in a light breeze.

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