The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Manchin warns that Biden’s agenda would create an ‘entitlement society.’ But his state leads the way.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speaks at an Economic Club of Washington event in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg)

In his skirmishes with the liberals of his party over the size and shape of their agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) has repeatedly warned that the left would lead the nation into a crippling dependency on government.

“I’ve been very clear when it comes to who we are as a society, who we are as a nation,” Manchin has said. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society.”

That phrase — “entitlement society” — has become something of a battle cry for the senior senator from West Virginia as he works to slash the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion domestic spending package to less than half its size.

Not surprising from a senator who hails from a state that presents itself as fiercely self-reliant. But in fact, West Virginians are not only older, sicker and poorer than most of the nation; they are, by some measures, more reliant on the federal government than any other state.

Manchin’s political maneuvering has more to do with his state’s political culture than any other factor. As the last remaining Democrat in a congressional delegation that was entirely blue as recently as the 1990s, Manchin is probably the only member of his party who would have a prayer of winning statewide in a place that is now deep red and that President Donald Trump carried by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020.

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This helps explain why Manchin scratched some of President Biden’s initial climate change proposals, including a plan to penalize utilities that do not switch to clean energy. He did this not because the coal industry plays as much a role in the state’s economy as it has historically — in 2020, coal mining employed fewer than 12,000 West Virginians, less than half the number it did only eight years earlier — but because coal continues to have a hold on the state’s psyche and its identity.

Yet even as West Virginia’s hostility to Washington has grown, the reality of its situation remains a very different picture.

According to statistics compiled by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, about 32 percent of West Virginians’ personal income last year came in the form of transfer payments — that is, government checks that include retirement and disability benefits, medical benefits, welfare payments, veterans benefits, unemployment compensation and education and training assistance.

That is a higher rate of government dependence than any other state. Mississippi comes in second — at just under 30 percent.

The state has a long history of turning to Washington for help. When John F. Kennedy campaigned in West Virginia in 1960, he was moved by the poverty and malnutrition he saw in a region that had been devastated by a decade-long decline in the coal industry and the lingering effects of the Great Depression. Kennedy promised that, if elected, he would use his first executive order to expand food assistance — to create what is today the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

The day after he was sworn in to office, Kennedy fulfilled that pledge, and West Virginia’s southern coal fields became the initial region included in the pilot program. Its first recipients were Alderson and Chloe Muncy of Paynesville, W.Va., the parents of 15 children, 13 still living at home, who used the $95 worth of stamps they received to buy, among other things, a gallon jar of apple butter and a watermelon.

Today, about 1 in 6 West Virginians relies on the anti-hunger program that has helped lift millions out of poverty. That is the second-highest participation rate in the country.

Does government assistance make West Virginia, to use Manchin’s term, an “entitlement society”? Of course not — at least, not if the term implies they are undeserving. Even with all the assistance its citizens receive from Washington, it has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

Manchin recognizes that as well, which is one reason he has remained at the negotiating table. The components of the social-spending package, which include a tax credit that would give between $3,000 and $3,600 per child to almost every family, will have a greater impact in West Virginia than they do in wealthier states.

As the state’s then-Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D) told me years ago, West Virginians “don’t have to like government, but they really need it.” And they, more than most states, have a lot to lose if Democrats fall short in getting their agenda over the legislative finish line.