Americans argue endlessly about the reasons for our inadequate social safety net–it’s the influence of the plutocrats, the demise of unions, globalization, capitalism, the two-party system, etc. And certainly, all of those things are contributors to our peculiarly American refusal to expand government safety-net programs. But an opinion piece that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times identified the real “elephant in the room.”
The reason we don’t have such programs is racism.( It’s the same reason we have Trump.)
The author, one Eduardo Porter, sums up a good deal of social science research when he asserts that the reason Americans have repeatedly rejected expansions of the social safety net is because that expansion inevitably collides “with one of the most powerful forces shaping the American experience: uncompromising racism.”
Why does the United States suffer the highest poverty rate among wealthy nations? Why does it have the highest teen pregnancy rate? Why are so many Americans addled by opioids? We blame globalization and technology. But these forces affect everybody — the French and the Canadians and the Japanese as much as us.
The United States alone has crumpled because it showed no interest in building the safeguards erected in other advanced countries to protect those on the wrong side of these changes. Why? Because we couldn’t be moved to build a safety net that cut across our divisions of ethnicity and race.
Porter revisits the New Deal and later efforts by President Johnson to expand social programs, and reminds us that–along with the positive results we remember, like Social Security and Medicare–there were “compromises” that effectively prevented African-Americans from sharing the benefits of those programs.
In order to win support of Southern Democrats, Roosevelt ensured that major parts of the New Deal excluded nonwhites. The Federal Housing Administration, to take one New Deal creation, is celebrated for expanding homeownership, but it also refused to back loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, or for black people period.
New Deal labor codes allowed businesses to offer whites a first crack at jobs and authorized lower pay scales for blacks. In their first incarnation, Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded domestic and farm jobs, which employed two out of three black workers.
That Nixon was a racist and an anti-Semite isn’t news. Notes taken by H.R. Haldeman (who certainly looked like the prototypical Nazi) recorded Nixon saying “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” That was in 1969.
Reagan excoriated undeserving black “welfare queens.” Bill Clinton, who had promised to expand health care, instead ended “welfare as we know it.” He replaced AFDC with TANF, and funded TANF with block grants that allowed states to play games with the money and, as Porter notes, ” withhold aid as they saw fit.”
Other rich countries have continued to expand and improve health care, education and child care —Porter says that such services today amount to about 10 percentage points more of their G.D.P. than they did in the 1960s. Meanwhile, in the United States, that proportion has barely budged. What did grow was incarceration.
And thanks to Michelle Alexander, we know that mass incarceration disproportionately targeted African-Americans–it was the “New Jim Crow.”
Porter is not optimistic about our capacity for change.
While minorities might eventually reshape American politics into something more inclusive, until that happens politics will be determined by the efforts of freaked-out whites to resist this change. Republicans’ efforts to ensure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation, like state-level efforts to suppress the vote of people of color and gerrymander districts to dilute their electoral clout, are a clear expression of white fear.
Whether Mr. Sanders or Mr. Biden wins the nomination, the Democrats will spend the rest of the primary promoting an expansive vision for America’s safety net. As they do, they also need to admit that they are envisioning an America that has never existed.
Ask yourself why the United States, alone among the world’s richest nations, still doesn’t provide its citizens comprehensive, universal health care. Ponder why Obamacare is being so relentlessly whittled down by Republican governors, the courts and the Trump administration. Racial animosity is at the root of all this — and until America finally grapples with it, even the grandest plans will amount to nothing.
The Coronavirus pandemic may make it impossible to ignore the consequences of our “original sin.”
The reason I keep harping on voting “blue no matter who” is because over the past forty or so years, the two-party system has basically sorted into a racist and an anti-racist party. There are undoubtedly still racist Democrats, and people of good will likely remain within the GOP– but given the Grand Old Party’s current base, good will is impotent.
Until we defeat America’s pervasive racism, it’s not just Medicare for all we won’t get–it’s an adequate social safety net.