Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) appeared on Fox News on Sunday to inform the public that he was not going to support President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. He did so after months of negotiations that had rendered the bill much less ambitious than most Democrats wanted, specifically aimed at getting Manchin on board by following lines he laid out.
He has offered a range of excuses for his decision, arguing that the national debt is the most urgent problem in need of a fix, a ludicrous position given that we’re still in the middle of a devastating pandemic. At other times, he’s said he simply thinks the bill is too big, without providing an alternative package with specifics. But privately, he has reportedly told colleagues that the primary reason he opposes the legislation is that he believes people would fraudulently use government benefits. Specifically, he reportedly suggested that he opposed paid sick leave because people might use it to take hunting trips, and that parents are using child tax credit payments to buy drugs.
This is, of course, an insult to his own constituents, since West Virginia has the third-lowest median income in the country and the fourth-highest poverty rate, and a large part of the population needs or will need just the sort of support Biden’s bill offers. Rather than offer them help, Manchin is willing to let them struggle in case some infinitesimally small number of benefit recipients might misuse the funds and programs.
But more than the boat and the fancy car, the comment about hunting trips stood out to me. It’s a subtle thing, but very telling. It tells you what kind of hunting Manchin is familiar with: the kind that costs money.
I grew up in a family of hunters. My dad hunted. My grandfathers hunted. My brothers grew up hunting. (I went hunting once as a child and discovered that I could only tolerate three hours in a tree stand if I brought a book.) Where we lived, in a part of rural Alabama that’s not dissimilar to much of Manchin’s West Virginia, hunting is something a lot people do. They do it because they enjoy it, but they also do it because it can keep their freezers stocked for a year at little or no cost.
This is part of why my dad did it. And so, we ate venison in every incarnation imaginable, year-round. We had deer steaks. Deer burgers. Deer sausage. Deer lasagna. If my parents’ kitchen had been a restaurant, it would have been called Bambi. I have never ordered venison in a restaurant because I had enough of it growing up to last a lifetime.
It’s hard to understate how many of the trappings of rural life — not just hunting, but gardening and raising chickens or keeping livestock — are really about saving money and sustenance. When Manchin thinks of hunting, he apparently thinks of a hunting trip, which at the high end might involve getting on a plane and stalking big game with the aid of guides, entirely for sport. The animal might be taxidermied and displayed later but it isn’t eaten. Some of these hunts do take place in West Virginia, but they seem to be marketed to tourists. Perhaps Manchin even thinks of the sort of safari trips that Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump have taken, replete with trophy photo opportunities and pointless killing of animals.
I suspect this is not how most West Virginians think of hunting.
My family did not grow up in poverty, but there were times when we struggled to make ends meet. My dad was a local lineman for Southern Company, and my mom was a janitor at my school and later, a lunch lady. These are not exactly high-income occupations, so being able to lower our food budget meant that we were able to enjoy other things and not have to worry as much about money. But my dad didn’t “take trips” to do it. He did it locally, finding spots by bartering with people and hunting on property owned by friends or in places where it was acceptable for the general public to hunt free.
He didn’t take time off to do it, either. He did it in hours he wasn’t working, and he often worked 60- to 70-hour weeks. My dad is a conservative, but he was a union member for the entirety of his 40-plus years with Southern Company, and he voted for Democrats the entire time I was growing up. If we lived in West Virginia, his political profile would have been very similar to that of Manchin’s constituents. Whatever sick time he had, he never abused it by lying about what he was doing with it. That Manchin apparently thinks so little of the people who put him in office is precisely why so many working-class people don’t trust elected officials to look out for their interests.
The distinction between hunting and hunting trip may seem minor, but it’s a tell. It’s not one that people who drive Maseratis and own luxury houseboats might recognize, but many West Virginians who struggle to put food on the table will. They will see that the senator they elected does not trust them, thinks they’re irresponsible and is unwilling to help them because on some level, he thinks they deserve their poverty.
Nearly 1 in 6 children under the age of 6 lives in poverty. In West Virginia, it’s 1 in 3 under the age of 5. For Manchin to think it’s morally and politically acceptable to punish these children because some of their parents might not be horribly ill when they take a sick day is disgraceful generally, but it’s particularly so for a Democrat.
The Cares Act has already lifted 17.8 million people out of poverty by providing them with services and money to sustain themselves and their families. We know social programs work, and there’s a reason the Build Back Better bill is supported by liberal and moderate or centrist Democrats alike. So while Manchin is spending his own paid leave time yachting, maybe he should contemplate his values and ask himself why he’s a Democrat in the first place. His constituents will, regardless.