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Hullabaloo


Monday, September 12, 2005

 
American Welfare

I promise that I will write about something else today, but I want to follow up on the post below just a bit to address an issue that comes up continually among liberals. It came up during the Democratic primaries and it will come up again I'm sure. There is a great desire to pivot the conversation to poverty rather than race because people believe that we will then be able to create a class argument that can appeal to working class whites and blacks alike.

Unfortunately, in America these issues are inextricably intertwined. You will never be able to separate them because the bedrock value of American "individualism" and the belief that the poor are simply unwilling to work is directly a result of our attitudes about race.

I linked to this moldy piece of mine in the post below, but I would like to put just a part of it on the front page so that people can see what I'm talking about. Ask yourself why America has never been able to put together a decent modern welfare state (or in less politically incorrect parlance --- a robust safety net) when all the other first world democracies (and some second world democracies) have.

It comes down to the veto power or dominance of the conservative southern states in electoral politics, just as we see it today. And it is one reason we have been unable to advance liberal government programs short of a national crisis or brief period of consensus --- and win much in the south since 1968.

The question has always been, why don’t southern working class whites vote their economic self-interest?

In this paper (pdf) Sociologist Nathan Glazer of Harvard), who has long been interested in the question of America’s underdeveloped welfare state, answers a related question --- “Why Americans don’t care about income inequality” which may give us some clues. Citing a comprehensive study by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth called, "Why Doesn't the United States have a European-Style Welfare State?" (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2/2001) he shows that the reluctance of Americans to embrace an egalitarian economic philosophy goes back to the beginning of the republic. But what is interesting is that both he and the economists offer some pretty conclusive evidence that the main reason for American “exceptionalism” in this case is, quite simply, racism.

AGS [Alesina, Glazear and Sacerdote] report, using the World Values Survey, that "opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70 % of West Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70 % of Americans hold the opposite view.... 71 % of Americans but only 40% of Europeans said ...poor people could work their way out of poverty."

[…]

"Racial fragmentation and the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among the poor played a major role in limiting redistribution.... Our bottom line is that Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution. In fact the political system is likely to be endogenous to these basic American beliefs."(p. 61)

"Endogenous" is economics-ese for saying we have the political system we do because we prefer the results it gives, such as limiting redistribution to the blacks. Thus the racial factor as well as a wider net of social beliefs play a key role in why Americans don't care about income inequality, and why, not caring, they have no great interest in expanding the welfare state.


Glazer goes on to point out how these attitudes may have come to pass historically by discussing the roles that the various immigrant support systems and the variety of religious institutions provided for the poor:

But initial uniformities were succeeded by a diversity which overwhelmed and replaced state functions by nonstate organizations, and it was within these that many of the services that are the mark of a fully developed welfare state were provided. Where do the blacks fit in? The situation of the blacks was indeed different. No religious or ethnic group had to face anything like the conditions of slavery or the fierce subsequent prejudice and segregation to which they were subjected. But the pre-existing conditions of fractionated social services affected them too. Like other groups, they established their own churches, which provided within the limits set by the prevailing poverty and absence of resources some services. Like other groups, too, they were dependant on pre-existing systems of social service that had been set up by religious and ethnic groups, primarily to serve their own, some of which reached out to serve blacks, as is the case with the religiously based (and now publicly funded) social service agencies of New York City. They were much more dependant, owing to their economic condition, on the poorly developed primitive public services, and they became in time the special ward of the expanded American welfare state's social services. Having become, to a greater extent than other groups, the clients of public services, they also affected, owing to the prevailing racism, the public image of these services.


Glazer notes that there are other factors involved in our attitudes about inequality having to do with our British heritage, religious backround etc, that also play into our attitudes. But, he and the three economists have put their finger on the problem Democrats have with white Southern voters who “vote against their economic self-interest,” and may just explain why populism is so often coupled with nativism and racism --- perhaps it’s always been impossible to make a populist pitch that includes blacks or immigrants without alienating whites.

So, we are dealing with a much more complex and intractable problem than “southerners have been duped by Nixon’s southern strategy” or that liberals have been insulting them for years by supposedly devaluing their culture. Indeed, even the nostalgia ... for FDR’s coalition is historically inaccurate. A majority of whites have never voted with blacks in the south. (In the 30’s, as we all know, southern blacks were rarely allowed to vote at all.) In fact, FDR had an implicit agreement with the southern base of his party to leave Jim Crow alone if he wanted their cooperation on other economic issues. The southern coalition went along out of desperation (and also because they were paying very little in taxes.) But, as soon as the economy began to recover, and Roosevelt began to concentrate on programs for the poor, the division that exists to this day re-emerged.


When you all get a chance to read Rick Perlstein's new book (which he generously allowed me to excerpt a bit of here) you will see how fragile and ephemeral the consensus that allowed the civil rights bills to pass in the mid-60's was. You will see that almost immediately the backlash formed against the anti-poverty programs despite the fact that, contrary to myth, they worked quite well and actually lifted a lot of people out of poverty, black and white alike.

Racism informs many Americans' ideas about poverty. It is also one of the darker philosphical underpinnings of our vaunted American individualism. From the beginning we had problems because government programs often had to help blacks as a last resort. It is why today many people believe that welfare has a black face even though far more welfare recipients are white. It is why we have developed the idea that the poor (pictured in our minds' eye as black and brown) are lazy and shiftless rather than unfortunate. (Europe, with its long history of class division doesn't see poverty this way.) It's why certain people made the assumption that the poor and black in New Orleans were all on welfare rather than the truth, which is that many of them are members of the urban working poor.

There are certainly many conservatives who hold a philosophy of small government for different reasons than racism. They may believe that power corrupts or that big government is inefficient. But there is no sense of economic self-interest in working class whites being against high taxes for millionaires and corporations and there is no reason that they should be worried about big government takeover of healthcare when thiers is terrible if it exists at all. And yet many of them vote against the party that promises to tax millionaires and corporations and provide national health insurance.

The sad fact is that in that great sea of Republican red, there are many whites who would rather do without health care than see money go to pay for programs that they believe benefit blacks to the detriment of whites. Their prejudice overwhelms their economic self-interest and always has. They vote for the party that reinforces their belief that government programs only benefit the undeserving african american poor.

That is why liberals have to accept that race must be part of the argument. We are making progress. Things are better. But progress requires staying focused on the issue and ensuring that there is no slippage, no matter how difficult and cumbersome this debate feels at times. The liberal agenda depends upon forcing this out of the national bloodstream with each successive generation not only for moral reasons, which I know we all believe, but it also depends upon forcing it out of the bloodstream for practical reasons. Until this knee jerk reaction to black poverty among certain whites (and Pat Buchanan), particularly in the south, is brought to heel we are fighting an uphill battle to muster the consensus we need to create the kind of nation that guarantees its citizens a modern, decent safety net regardless of race or class.



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