Tag: economic justice

Is the “fiscal cliff” debate a proxy for a conversation about race?

By Alan Bean

Are we talking about the “fiscal cliff” because we are afraid to talk about race?  Imara Jones of Colorlines thinks so.

This is not your standard, “hooray for our side” culture war trope; the argument here is that the blue team is just as responsible for muddying the waters as the red team.

According to this account, Republicans gained power in the late 1970s, and have held power ever since, by arguing that programs designed to help the poor are morally debilitating gifts squandered on lazy black people.  The argument proved so successful that Democrats challenged it at their peril.  As Jones points out, it was a Democratic president that ended welfare as we know it.

Among Republicans, the idea that black people vote for Democratic candidates because they want welfare is deeply entrenched.  But the success of the Republican “welfare is toxic” argument is best reflected in responses to the common opinion poll question about whether welfare does more harm than good.  When the question for first asked in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in 1995, 72% of whites, 57% of current or former welfare recipients, and 52% of African Americans agreed.  The numbers haven’t changed that much in intervening years.

It is difficult to argue that the government needs to do more to help poor people of color when even the recipients of government assistance think welfare is counterproductive.  Barack Obama knows that, given the current state of public opinion, Democrats can’t win this argument.  On the other hand, a majority of Republicans support the idea of raising taxes on the rich, so that’s the way the argument is framed.

It might be easier to argue for compassionate budget priorities if “welfare as we know it” was replaced by programs dedicated to providing meaningful work to unemployed individuals who aren’t responsible for raising young children.  Unfortunately, the jobs our economy creates for unskilled workers come with poverty wages.  Walmart routinely counsels its employees in the art of applying for government-sponsored poverty programs; they know most of the jobs they advertise don’t pay a living wage.    (more…)