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17:16

Going small: the fragile world of a single constituent

Our latest Notable Narrative is a story from The Washington Post about Clarence Cammers, a Wisconsin man who asks a question at a town hall meeting with his congressman.

So many of the narratives we choose focus on high drama: violence, natural disasters, illness or financial ruin. Here, the Post’s Eli Saslow offers a different kind of tension. Cammers is a lifelong Republican who is not sure that his congressman – also a Republican – is fighting the right battle in the budget wars. After four decades of working, he is now on disability for a knee injury and must painstakingly calculate the smallest of expenses each month.

His Social Security payments have not included a cost-of-living increase in the past two years, even as life has become more expensive. Elkhorn electric bills are up 30 percent over last year. The assessed value of his home has dropped 14 percent. Gas is $4 a gallon, groceries cost $110 each week instead of $80, and the town is charging an extra $2.50 a week to haul away his trash. So Clarence clips coupons, cuts back on dinners at Chili’s, drives less and spends more time at the desk in his basement, managing the budget.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Cammers manages to live within his means and has little tolerance for deficit spending on a national level. But his 32-year-old son Tim’s severe attention deficit disorder and apparent inability to be independent worry him. He puzzles over what he sees as the options: ever-expanding debt and taxes or cutbacks to any kind of a safety net for his son?

Saslow has not written a policy piece. Instead, he brings forward one constituent without trying to make him represent the entire country. It is the vividness of these people and their dialogue that makes them lovely and sad: the father forced onto disability after four decades of work, the son, who does not come across as an entirely sympathetic character yet seems incapable of living on his own. With this portrait of quiet anxiety, Saslow shows how what we know about people from the outside fails to represent even the smallest part of their full lives, and in bringing a father and son to life, he sidesteps entrenched ways of talking about the budget and gets to the heart of pondering what kind of country we want to be.

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