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Hostile Dependency

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Why is it that regions of the country with a high proportion of people who rely on the safety net tend to elect politicians who vow to slash it?

Many factors explain this -- different world views and values, apathy, misinformation, manipulation of wedge issues. But the psychology of hostile dependency is also at play.

A recent New York Times article explores criticism of the safety net by those who increasingly depend on it. It notes that middle-class people who are angry at, but reliant on, government "are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it."

Parents of adolescents may recognize this pattern. Teenagers, still dependent but longing to be free, often chafe against them. It's an age-appropriate version of biting the hand that feeds you.

Hostile dependency suffuses not just families but politics. "Hands off my Medicare!," yelled by anti-government protesters, echoes "Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?," a popular book for parents of teens.


This sheds new light on today's political landscape. America is a young country, with all the exuberance, idealism, frustration and self-absorption of adolescence. Youth, combined with culturally ingrained tropes of freedom and self-reliance, define our national character.

It's hard to integrate the equal imperatives of dependence and independence that define a well-balanced individual or society. Distinguishing between what fosters or stymies growth is not always clear, and is complicated by our national fixation on going it alone. We often mistake need for failure, abandonment for freedom.

Like the tumult of adolescence, perhaps this reactivity will subside as America moves toward a more secure identity in which interdependence is embraced rather than rejected.

With a Perspective, I'm Lorrie Goldin.

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