Two things happened recently that have led to this post.  First I received my first payment from Social Security and secondly I was doing some research for that project on Walter White and the NAACP which I have been working on. Receiving my first Social security payment made  me wonder about the Social Security Act and since I was researching race and the New Deal programs anyway I decided to look at what has been written about America’s first welfare program Social Security.  The last time I had looked at the New Deal was awhile ago but the accepted wisdom was that it was discriminatory mostly because the white liberal New Dealers had to make concessions to the racist southern Congressmen in order to get things passed into law. FDR and the rest of the New Dealers were willing to sacrifice the rights of African Americans in order to do what they thought was best for the country. This was the view that liberal historians like William Chace and Harvard Sitkoff expounded in their books on the New Deal.

This was especially true of the Social Security Act which intentionally excluded those occupations of most African American workers like domestic service, farmer workers and professional work (together almost two thirds of African American workers, 85% of African American women workers) from the Act’s coverage. It was true of other New Deal Acts  as well. In my research however I ran into this little book by Mary Poole called The Segregated Origins of Social Security, University of North Carolina Press, 2006.  She did research into the papers of the originators of the act, the congressional papers and debates among the New Deal staff.  She concludes:

…African Americans were not denied the benefits of Social Security because of the machinations of southern congressional leadership as is assumed.  The Act was made discriminatory through a shifting web of alliances of white policy makers that crossed regions and political parties.  The members of the group that wielded the greatest influence on these developments were not southerners in Congress, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own …who genuinely sought to build a fairer and better world…but whose vision was steeped in racial privilege.

She concludes that the policymakers “shared an interest in protecting the political and economic value of whiteness.”

The most interesting thing about her analysis however are the long term effects she sees.  It channeled most African Americans away from the programs created for workers and into public assistance if at all. In a society that assigns economic and social value to all things considered “white’ and “self made” it assigned a stigma to those who received public assistance.  They had failed as individuals and are a burden on society.  Even though later changes in the 1960’s would change some aspects of this discrimination the stigma attached continues to this day in the “American cultural imagination.”  Welfare and black underclass have become synonymous in that imagination even though the numbers prove that welfare recipients are a diverse group and whites are the leading recipients. Secondly generations of African American families and communities “lost out on the baseline of economic security…offered to covered workers.”

The first effect continues to affect politics today as white conservatives appeal to poor and middle class whites, even those receiving government benefits through social security or medicare, about big government “wasting” the taxpayers’ hard earned money on charity for the poor. This distinction between earned benefits for whites and charity for blacks was however established by the government itself at the dawn of the American welfare state.

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