Conservative mythmaking has largely shaped and directed our national dialogue on welfare and government assistance for the past fifty years. Coming to an absolute fever-pitch during the Reagan administration, racialized tropes such as the “Welfare Queen” activated and preyed upon the entrenched animus between working-class blacks and whites. Touring the country for his 1976 presidential bid, Reagan was always ready with an anecdotal bit on how governmental assistance programs were being manipulated by con-artists and hoodlums. It is precisely this history of storytelling and stereotyping that has given the nation’s populace its current cynical distortion of the term welfare and all that is attached to it.
Today, discussions of government assistance from healthcare to housing send Republican pundits, commentators and legislators into a frothing tantrum of righteous indignation. A palpable air of racial animus persists. Across the internet and right-wing media tales are disseminated that keep alive the myth of a corrupt minority underclass at work exploiting the system. This underlying animus and distortion of past and present reality has turned the very term welfare, with all its proper denotations of pride and strength in the collective, into a dirty word.
Writing recently for the Democratic Left magazine, Joseph Schwartz makes a pointed call for the left to address the rifts between working-class Blacks and whites that arise from the race-baiting inherent in the right’s mythic constructs. “For these groups to transform the political order, they must form broader multi-racial coalitions … a divided working class is a defeated working class,” writes Schwartz, a Professor of Political Science at Temple University.
But the vision of a sinister minority underclass has multiple historical strands that weigh upon and undergird contemporary political discussions, most pointedly those surrounding health care legislation and governmental programs like Medicaid.
Most foundational to the myth is the idea that Black Americans receive disproportionate benefits from government assistance. This misconception easily unwinds under the pressure of historical reflection. It is a potent case of race-baiting with long historical tendrils that stretch back to the reconstruction period and on to the Jim Crow south. As Schwartz observes, “whites are the largest beneficiaries of grossly underfunded anti-poverty programs” in the United States.
With few exceptions across the 50 states, whites comprise the largest percentage of participants in Medicaid insurance programs. Whites also receive more food stamps than any other ethnic group, according to the Department of Agriculture, which administers the assistance program.
Their longstanding access to government aid has given whites a chance to gain access to the “The American dream.” We can thus invert the myth of an undeserving minority underclass as the largest beneficiaries of governmental assistance. Historically, with the crucial and timely support of programs like public housing and federal emergency relief, working class and poverty-stricken whites have gained economic stability. They were able to flourish, becoming homeowners, gaining upward mobility and a coveted place in the suburbs.
New Orleans provides a case study of how the racially preferential determination for public assistance historically played out. During the early to mid-twentieth century, with Jim Crow stretching its hand over the south, African Americans and people of color could not receive government assistance. Meanwhile, corporatist powers of capital exacerbated racial animus between working-class blacks and whites in the city. On the waterfronts and elsewhere riots broke out during the early twentieth century when bosses would call in crews of black workers to relieve predominantly white union workers on strike.
During the years of the Great Depression from 1930 to 1941, public housing programs for the poor and the homeless were stymied in New Orleans, caught up in a bureaucratic deadlock over contestations between state and federal power. When public housing programs were finally instituted towards the end of the era, the projects were segregated with substantial portions of federal assistance going to white projects first.
This legacy was compounded by the practice of redlining during the Depression and inter-war years. Minorities were not allowed access to home ownership and bank loans, while they were refused employment based on race.
Reflecting on the racially disproportionate impact Hurricane Katrina later had on New Orleans, Rob Wilcox noted in the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy:
By 2000, the average African-American resident in New Orleans lived in a neighborhood in which eighty-two percent of the population was African-American (a proportion that is considered “highly segregated”).
Paralleling this segregation was the clustering of those living in poverty. Forty-three percent of poor African-Americans lived in areas of concentrated poverty, while only 11 percent of poor whites lived in such areas.
Considering this history and its consequences, it is no wonder, in our contemporary moment, that torch-wielding mobs with dubious ties to white nationalist organizations are active in protecting the symbols of this cruel past.
Yet, the left’s energy and effort should not be solely expended on attempts to call out this clear and overarching historical thematic of minority exploitation. Rather it must work to mind the underlying network of power and the system of capitalism that thrives on the divisive politics of the right.
Historian Mike Davis, writing his consequential history of the labor movement in America, Prisoners of the American Dream, explains that intraclass divisions amongst workers perpetually posed the largest obstacle to collective action and labor solidarity throughout the twentieth century. Racism is the overarching theme of the American labor movement. Only amid the glory days of labor power and militant unionism from 1937 to 1941 did unions diversify and there was a true attempt at class solidarity and action amongst the American working-class. It’s time to go back to those glory days. Busting America’s welfare myth is a crucial first step in this direction, a step towards building broader, multiracial coalitions to achieve greater working-class power.
Photo credit: Kevin Bond.