We’re finally hearing more about Manchin’s specific demands (and those of Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the other Democratic senator determined to cut the bill down), and each new detail is more distressing than the last.
And rather than extending the enhanced Child Tax Credit — an extraordinarily effective anti-poverty program — he wants to limit it to families making less than $60,000 a year and impose work requirements. These raise administrative costs, impose bureaucratic burdens on recipients, and embody the belief that people who get government benefits are lazy moochers who should be made to prove their moral worthiness through a time tax and ritual humiliation.
An understandable reaction to all this is to point out that some of the people most hurt by Manchin’s positions will be his own constituents. That’s true not only of the provisions aimed at easing people’s economic burdens — West Virginia has the fourth-highest rate of poverty among states — but of his position on climate.
The truth is that coal is a dying industry and his constituents would be much better served by a smart transition to other industries than by clinging desperately to the tiny number of remaining coal jobs. According to government data, in 2020 there were just 11,418 people employed in the coal industry in West Virginia — about one out of every 157 people in the state. Put them all in the West Virginia University football stadium and about four out of five seats would still be empty.
But what if all that misunderstands how Manchin is conceiving of his home state? What if what he’s saying to himself isn’t “The people of West Virginia have problems and it’s my job to help solve them,” but rather, “Everything in West Virginia is fine, and I’m going to make sure it stays the way it is”?
Seen from that perspective, Manchin’s position makes a lot more sense. We assume that every member of Congress will advocate for the parochial interests of the state or district they represent, but there are usually multiple interests involved, and sometimes they are at odds.
Take the Child Tax Credit, which is now going to families making under $150,000. Even if that were cut down to $60,000, it would still go to a great many West Virginia families. But the key is the work requirements. We’re not going to impose that bureaucratic burden on the middle class, let alone the wealthy — make a lawyer or a small-business owner document their work hours for the government, are you crazy? What’s next, require drug testing before you can get the mortgage interest deduction?
But Manchin wants to impose work requirements on poorer people, including his own constituents. If you give them a hand it will just turn them into bloodsucking leeches who won’t pull their own weight. Do that, Manchin says, and we’ll become an “entitlement society.”
The contempt embodied in that position is something we usually hear from Republicans, but Manchin clearly believes it too. It’s a good reminder that he has always been a representative of the owner class, the bosses, the ones who get rich off other people’s labor (including, in his case, people’s labor in the coal mines). Manchin may have more of a down-home persona than, say, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), but they come from the same philosophical place.
Politicians’ motives can be complicated, and we should always keep in mind Manchin’s unique political incentives. As a Democrat representing a very conservative state, he has to demonstrate a hostility to his own party and its agenda to reassure his constituents that he isn’t some liberal.
But he also has substantive beliefs, which go beyond merely objecting to the construction of a system of social supports that is too robust. On an even more fundamental level, Manchin clearly thinks that things are basically fine — not just in the United States, but in West Virginia in particular. His state’s poverty and the environmental devastation caused by its coal industry, well, that’s just how things are.
Maybe we can nibble around the edges of those problems, but Manchin would rather we not go too far. From where he sits, the status quo looks pretty good. And he’ll do everything he can to make sure it stays that way.