Jan 4, 2011

"Welfare queens" and "hard-working white men" in American Myth and History

Once in a while I actually agree with something David Brooks writes, and apparently today's the day. His column this morning argues that the debate pitting "big government" against "small government" is the wrong debate to have. Instead, he says, we should be arguing about what kinds of government programs best serve the public interest, and he points out that there are historical examples of both big and small governments doing both good and bad things. 

I do have a major problem, though, with how he defines the public interest, and - guess what - it has to do with his use of history. Or, to put it another way, his use of historical mythology. He argues that the way to judge government programs should be "the Achievement Test," which asks, "Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?" In essence, he defines these qualities as quintessential American values and goes on to use the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill as positive examples of government programs that passed the Achievement Test. Then he says this about welfare:
        "The welfare policies of the 1960s gave people money without asking for work and personal responsibility in return, and these had to be replaced. The welfare reforms of the 1990s involved big and intrusive government, but they did the job because they were in line with American values, linking effort to reward."

But this argument is entirely race-blind, gender-blind, and sexuality-blind, and I don't mean that in a good way. All of the "good" examples that Brooks cites overwhelmingly benefited straight, white men, or punished poor, black women, and they belie the idea that "effort" and "reward" are directly linked in American history. 

The Homestead Act took land that had been appropriated from Native American tribes and redistributed it to American citizens, nearly all of whom were white. The Act went into effect on January 1, 1863, the same day that Lincoln emancipated Confederate slaves - but since only citizens could claim land under the Act, and most African-Americans weren't citizens until the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, blacks were largely unable to take ownership of the land made available under the Act for its first five years. Then, many states wrote prohibitions on black land settlement and ownership into their constitutions, so even once they were citizens most blacks were prevented from benefiting from the Homestead Act. 

The G.I. Bill provides an even starker example. Enacted in 1944, the Bill provided certain benefits to veterans that enabled them to go to college, buy homes, and start businesses. But many colleges were still segregated, as was nearly all housing stock, especially the new postwar suburbs, so benefits to black veterans had far less value than the corresponding benefits for whites. Since veterans were overwhelmingly male, these benefits accrued mostly to men and to their wives. Moreover, since homosexuals were purged from the military during and after World War II, they too were denied the benefits of the G.I. Bill.

As for the history of welfare, I have a few things to say. The first is that most historians consider the G.I. Bill a form of “welfare,” along with things like Social Security and Medicre, but Americans like to distinguish between welfare programs for the so-called “deserving” poor (the elderly, the widowed) and the “un-deserving” poor (single moms, people of color), and they’re usually referring to the second kind when they just say “welfare.” That’s certainly what Brooks is getting at here, and his brief analysis is totally clouded by his assumptions about welfare recipients.

The 1960s were the greatest period of experimentation in anti-poverty programs in American history, encapsulated by the “war on poverty” and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Most of these programs were, indeed, targeted at single women with children, partly because the roots of the formal government program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, lay in a 1935 law that only gave financial support to single mothers with kids (then called Aid to Dependent Children). In the 1960s reformers had high hopes of eradicating poverty by providing financial support, social services for education and health, and other programs for the poor. By the 1970s, though, a growing contingent of American politicians and intellectuals had decided that welfare encouraged people to avoid work. These ideas were founded largely on stereotypes about lazy black women, even though black women made up a minority of welfare recipients. The increasing concentration of poverty among people of color in urban areas, largely driven by black migration from the rural south and middle-class “white flight” from the cities, helped perpetuate the innacurate idea that welfare recipients were all single black moms having kids out-of-wedlock - many of whom were just ripping off the government.

When Brooks says that AFDC “had to be replaced” and that the 1996 reform that introduced Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) “did the job,” he gives no suggestion of the metrics by which he’s measuring the relative success of these programs. What is clear from his analysis, though, is that he supports welfare programs that have offered financial support to “deserving” white men (the Homestead Act, the G.I. Bill) but opposes welfare programs that have offered financial support to “undeserving” women, especially women of color.

The problem with this kind of color-, gender-, and sexuality-blind remembrance of history is that it lends false credence to the idea that straight, white men have gotten where they are by embodying the American value that “link[s] effort to reward.” To whatever extent that may be true, we always have to remember that American history is filled with examples of government policies that benefited those straight, white men at everyone else’s expense. And I mean that literally: through their tax payments, all Americans have subsidized welfare programs like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill that benefited only a portion of the American population, and yet we have refused to subsidize programs that benefit only “special interests” like poor women. We are not and have never been a color-, gender-, or sexuality-blind polity, and "effort" has never been our only determinant of "reward."

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