The solid middle class citizens of our economically beset nation are sorry that their growing dependence on government handouts is bankrupting the federal government. If they could possibly send the money back, they would. But they can’t, and so the poor get less. That seems to be the message of a major New York Times feature on the American social safety net. Reading between the lines, it tells us something quite different, and more interesting.

The New York Times ran an informative, engrossing, and very long front-page feature last Sunday on who gets the most from the social safety net. The basic, though muddled, message was that middle class households are sopping up more of what were intended to be anti-poverty programs. In so doing, they’ve become a danger to the nation’s future solvency. But they need the money and don’t know how to stop.

The article misrepresents these programs in a variety of ways – quite a few, in fact. For one thing, it lumps in Social Security and parts of Medicare, which are fully paid for by workers’ contributions, with programs like school lunches, food stamps, and Medicaid, which are not. It presents alarming numbers about the growth of Medicare and Medicaid, but fails to note that the rising cost of these programs is driven by the overall health care delivery and payment system they are part of, not by some inherent fault in government.

More fundamentally, the reporters, Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff, misunderstand the nature of programs like Social Security and Medicare – social insurance that benefits people in all walks of life, and was intended to – and those geared specifically to help the poor.

The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement.

No. Social Security and Medicare were always intended to help “maintain” the middle class. This was never a “secondary” goal. By relieving working people of the fear that they would end their years in the poor house, they helped create the postwar American middle class and made it easier for more people to take the kinds of risks in business and their careers that conservatives mistakenly think social benefits dissuade them from.

As for the steep rise in overall government transfer payments over the past decade, toward the end of their article, Appelbaum and Gebeloff unwittingly provide a better answer than a devouring middle class. Nationally, they note, per capita income excluding government benefits fell by 3% between 2000 and 2009, the period spanning the dot.com bust, the subsequent jobless recovery, the 2008 housing and financial meltdown, and the current jobless recovery. The “safety net” is not out of control. It did exactly what it was intended to do: to partially fill in that gap, acting as a countercyclical force buoying the economy up during a period of slow growth or none at all.

That’s not the end of the proverbial story, however. What’s helpful and informative about the Times feature is that it underscores a fundamental cultural disconnect in America over social programs, who benefits from them, and what they are intended to accomplish. It also tells us something new about the Tea Party and that movement’s impact on politics. Let’s take a closer look at how it was put together.

Briefly, the Times conducted a nationwide poll of Americans’ attitudes about the social safety net. Then, the paper sent reporters to one locality for up-close-and-personal interviews that they hoped with shed light on the results. This is an approach that’s become the core of much “serious” journalism by major media, with the resources to expend, in our data-happy, poll-driven era.

Sometimes, it can yield worthwhile results. A lot depends, however, on the location the editors pick to conduct interviews – what aspect of the survey findings they are trying to highlight, and why. Chisago County is a middle-income area under increasing economic stress. According to the Times, farms and small businesses are being replaced by exurban housing for commuters to Minneapolis. Yet, after electing the same Democrat to Congress for 36 years, in 2010 Chisago elected a Tea-Party Republican.

That’s quite likely what intrigued the Times about this particular slice of America – along with the fact that federal benefit payments to Chisago residents have ballooned in the past 10 years. Why are people who rely on government aid so inclined to vote for candidates who want to cut it? Why do communities threatened by the brutal economics of the neoliberal era often move right rather left politically? Why, as the Times notes, did two thirds of the 100 counties that are most dependent on government assistance, vote for John McCain in 2010?

These questions have been on the minds of pundits for a long time. They were gone over at length by Thomas Frank in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? The electoral success of the Tea Party in 2010 has given it new prominence. Some of what the Chisago residents said to the Times reporters in the safety net feature is very illuminating on this matter, and I’ll get this in a moment.

The trouble is that it doesn’t tell us much about the national survey results that underpin the Times feature. Chisago County residents have an interesting story to tell, but they reflect the attitudes of the small group of people who happened to talk to Appelbaum and Gebeloff. For instance, the authors repeatedly tell us that these people “cannot imagine asking people to pay higher taxes” and believe that government benefits will have to be cut at some point – perhaps during their children’s working lives.

Yet the Times’ survey results show that “a majority of Americans favor raising taxes or premiums rather then reducing benefits” to “keep Medicare solvent.” An overwhelming 85% agreed that raising taxes on the wealthy should play a role in lowering the federal deficit, with three of five saying it should play “a major role.”

Survey findings are slippery creatures, but those results are pretty emphatic. But how about this one? While per capita income ex-government benefits has fallen 3% nationally in the past decade, it’s fallen even more in Chisago County – 6% between 2000 and 2007, and, wrenchingly, a further 7% in the following two years. The people’s response: to elect a Tea Partier to the House.

Why? Chip Cravaack, their new representative in Washington, talks in the Times article about the need to remove the burden of debt from his two sons – the reason he voted for the Ryan budget resolution to phase out Medicare when he arrived in the House. Again and again, people in Chisago told the Times they believed the government was “wasting” their tax dollars on people who don’t “deserve” the benefits.

How can they think this when all around them – they pop up repeatedly in the Times article – people are “scraping by” on benefits like Social Security? Says one man:

“You can’t take that away. My own sister has only Social Security. That’s all. That’s all she’s going to have. And if you take that away from her, Christ, she’d be a street person. I don’t think we can cut them off on that.”

Chisago residents who spoke with the Times regard themselves as middle class even if some of them are in straitened circumstances. Which only underscores the importance of Social Security as a “middle-class benefit”: old-age poverty can happen to anyone.

Just because one understands this as an aspect of everyday life doesn’t mean that one acts on it at election time, however. What makes Chisago County interesting is that it’s not a classic part of the American Bible Belt. It was reliably Democratic for many years, and only recently went Republican. In 2008, a majority there voted for John McCain for president. This says a lot about the shifting appeal of right-wing politics in this country. According to Appelbaum and Gebeloff,

residents say social issues play a role, but in recent years concerns about spending and taxes have predominated. Voters in the North Branch school district have rejected increased financing for local schools in each of the past three years. In 2010, the district switched to a four-day school week, striking Monday from the calendar to save money.

Another way to look at this is that “spending and taxes” are no longer just economic issues, but “social” or moral issues as well. In 2009-10, the Tea Party included many people who had participated in the earlier Christian Coalition and militia movements. But the issues it stressed weren’t about religious or racial identity. Instead, it hearkened back to the Silent Majority of the early 1970s, with its barely concealed bitterness toward “undeserving” groups in society who taxed the good citizens of the nation to pay for benefits they hadn’t “earned.”

“Spending and taxes” may not sound quite as incendiary as abortion, “illegal” immigration, and the Second Amendment, but they’ve acquired much the same powerful resonance since the first, 2009 rallies against ObamaCare. Not everyone who expresses strong feelings about gun rights even owns a gun. Not everyone who complains about “spending and taxes” has never needed to apply for, say, unemployment benefits. What the phrase implies – people with no discipline, people with bad values, people who aren’t like us – is there, just beneath the surface.

The most dramatic feature of the Times story is a large map highlighting the counties most dependent on government benefits in 2009, juxtaposed with another from 1979. Sure enough, the red counties – those where households receive the most government aid – have spread enormously. Whereas formerly, most of them were in a few traditionally impoverished areas like the Appalachians and Ozarks, by 2009 they had spread all over the Old South, into the Rust Belt and coal mining country, and into other, once booming Sun Belt states like Arizona and New Mexico. Despite a widespread American cultural prejudice, my guess would be that one common characteristic would not be racial diversity. Many if not most might well be fairly homogeneous – on the white side.

The Times explains the greater dependency of Red State America as resulting from “the collapse of manufacturing and growth of older populations.” That might account for the high per capita levels of government benefits in, say, Michigan and Florida. But what about Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and parts of Texas? These are the “new economy” states that have been luring manufacturing jobs from the Rust Belt with right-to-work laws and big tax breaks. Could it be that the Sun Belt economic miracle that conservative pundits have been touting for years, isn’t what it was cracked up to be?

A more likely common denominator that binds many of the New Poor areas stretching from Chisago County to big blocks of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana is the economic regime these regions have lived under for the past 30 years. State- and local-level governments in these areas are more likely than in the rest of the country to have cut taxes – especially for businesses – eased work rules, and otherwise tried to remake themselves to the specifications of the Cato Institute – or at least the Democratic Leadership Council.

Despite some splashy, sporadic successes, the experiment has largely failed, and the result is a growing population with little left but the safety net.

What emerges most fascinatingly, but remains oddly unaddressed, in the Times article, is the divide between what seems like two Americas: one, areas like Chisago County, with their deep economic troubles and increasing tendency to accept simplistic explanations that reinforce their social-cultural anxieties but only offer a dead end for their communities; and the other, more diverse regions that haven’t taken quite such strong swigs of the free-market medicine.

One aspect of the divide is economic. The other may be cultural: a difference in inclination to understand themselves as part of a larger, mutually dependent, interconnected society. Along with their economic troubles, the most “dependent” parts of this country may indeed be suffering a kind of socio-cultural disintegration – just not the kind they think it is.