Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Race and Welfare

In response to Steve's earlier post, why exactly was welfare seen as a moral hazard? The usual reason is that welfare recipients were less likely to work, more likely to have children, and more likely to engage in a range of pathological behaviors. All of those things trigger some pretty series racial and gender stereotypes. And to say that welfare reform helped alleviate some of those problems ignores how racism influenced the perception of the problem in the first place. To take an extreme example, white racists often justified slavery since they thought that blacks were lazy and wouldn't work. Well, slavery clearly "fixed" the problem of blacks not working, but that overlooks the fact that it was a problem only in the minds of white racists.

Also, I hardly think that welfare reform drained the poison of white racism. Many liberals argued in the early 1990s that average whites had such a bad impression of welfare that, at best, it prevented any further expansion of the welfare state or, at worst, risked undermining existing welfare state programs. Well, we've reformed welfare but I don't see much evidence of a reinvigorated New Deal coalition pushing for the advancement of broad social programs. Is there any evidence that white attitudes toward welfare have improved significantly since 1996?

Finally, let's say, for sake of argument, that welfare reform has has depoliticized the issue. Is that necessarily a good thing? To take another extreme example, Jim Crow laws ended the controversy over blacks voting and participating fully in the civic life of the post-bellum South. Indeed, one could argue that it made blacks better off by reducing extra-legal means (lynch mobs) of dealing with such controversies. Nonetheless, I don't believe I'm alone in thinking that the overall status of blacks was not improved. As I (with Smith) wrote in our book, any advancement in the status of blacks will generate controversy. There's no easy or painless way to do it.

So what's my solution? Treat welfare like social security. We decided back in the 1930s that society would be better off if seniors were guaranteed a decent level of income to support themselves when they left the labor force. No one wanted to hear about Grandma subsisting on cat food or Grandpa having to keep working at the mill until he keeled over. And we also said that this program would be universal, not means-tested, so that it would have broad political support. And it's worked. Seniors now have the lowest poverty rate of any group.

Why don't we do the same with families with children? Isn't it just as much in the interest of society that families with children also be assured of a decent income? If some parents use this to pay for childcare while they work, that's fine. It's also fine if they use it to supplement their income while one parent drops out of the labor force to care for the kid(s). I would also add that as the father of 3 and 8 year olds, staying home and taking care of kids can hardly be classified as "not working." You could also imagine a sliding scale so that you would get less money with each additional child (there are some economies of scale here) and that the subsidy would decrease as the children got older. Make the program universal, like Social Security, so everybody has a stake in it.

Why don't we have this type of program? Well, Rob Lieberman, Michael Brown, and others have shown that racism strongly influenced the development of the US welfare state, steering it away from the type of universal system I've outlined and toward the heavily segmented and racialized system we have. And having gone down this road in the 1930s, it's pretty hard to go back, not least because the racialized welfare system we did get helped to create and reinforce racial inequality and prejudices.


Anonymous said...

Prompted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan in 1971, but it was hacked to death by hysterical conservatives and envious libeerals. Talk about an unholy alliance!

MWS said...

I agree that moral hazard under the American welfare system has always been unlikely because it was not particularly generous. However, my understanding of the generous German welfare system is that it has created a large number of people who prefer being on the dole to taking a job they don't like. I don't know if this is true or not, but it might support the moral hazard theory. Does anyone with more knowledge have any comments about this?