Recently a friend who was a couple of classes behind me in college and who is a reasonable but die-hard conservative mentioned “government sponsored systematic racial inequality.” By this I take it that he was implying that current social welfare programs like TANF and food stamps trap African Americans in cycles of dependency that reify racial inequity, that is, turn it into a reality. That is a variation of the usual conservative argument against social welfare programs: they sap individuals’ motivation to go out and get a job, encourage laziness, and in general hold back the poor. This is of course based upon the tenets of personal responsibility and individualism that form the core of conservative thought. I have recently been researching the New Deal where many of today’s social welfare programs were born. There is much evidence of “government sponsored systematic racial inequity” in those programs.  The Social Security Act for example excluded agricultural workers and domestic workers which were common occupations for blacks and women. Whether this was intentionally racially or gender biased is a point of contention among New Deal historians and also irrelevant.  The effect if not the intent of the law  was to exclude many African American workers. Many of the programs to put people back to work were skewed towards whites rather than blacks. Blacks not only received fewer subsidized work opportunities than their presence among local populations of workers and in unemployment lines warranted, these programs were usually administered by local officials who imposed restrictions, limited opportunities, segregation and lower wages paid to black workers. Most importantly the liberals of the New Deal conceived of the programs that helped whites as “work’ programs and the programs that helped most blacks as “relief” programs. This set up a dichotomy between positively perceived and unacknowledged government supports to workers and business, versus negatively perceived “charity” to poor and especially black poor people. Although many more people who now receive the social government payments called “welfare” are white, “welfare” has been stigmatized in common perception as going mostly to black people and poor black people have been stigmatized as “welfare queens’ or as recipients of charity.

Conservatives have used these perceptions to press their political agenda which calls for a cutting back of social welfare or so called “entitlement” programs. My own experiences among the poor and my social worker wife’s experiences among the poor as well, indicate that most poor people would rather work than receive “welfare.” National surveys concur. Given the limited support both in duration and amount that “welfare” programs provide, the restrictions which such programs demand, and the social stigma attached to them, this is not surprising. Most of the people on “welfare” are children and the elderly thus unable to contribute much to the workforce. Limited job skills may explain why some do not find jobs and get off “welfare” and so programs galore to improve those skills have sprung up with government funding. The lack of quality education plays a role here but don’t get me started on that. The major reason why they do not get off welfare is a shortage of jobs for which the poor are eligible. There are many reasons for this shortage: the export of unskilled or semiskilled jobs abroad, cheaper wages abroad, the corporate depression of American wages, the structural transformation of the American economy into more of a service economy than a productive one, and on and on. It is not a lack of personal responsibility but low wages, a shortage of jobs, and limited economic options that push people onto the “welfare” rolls. Putting further restrictions on welfare, for example restricting what one can use food stamps to purchase, and cutting “welfare” benefits in the economic reality of fewer jobs that provide a living wage, is not just cruel and shortsighted, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Once again conservatives have let theory blind them to reality, ignored the facts because of ideology, condescended to their constituents, and let their privilege prevent them from seeing, hearing about, knowing and understanding how the people they are supposed to serve really live. At their inception government sponsored programs reproduced racial inequality. I would only need to cite the New Deal programs but later Federal Housing Authority lending programs have done so as well. Over the years many have worked to eliminate these racial inequalities so that the programs work better today. The government sponsored programs do not produce racial inequality but rather racial inequality makes government programs look the way they do.

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