American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise

By Eduardo Porter

Alfred A. Knopf | 2020

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Eduardo Porter

Economist Traces History of Our Neglected Safety Net

Eduardo Porter’s American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise was published on March 17 of this year, just four days after the Covid-19 virus outbreak was declared a national emergency. He no doubt would have had a lot to say about the government’s monumental mishandling of the crisis.

Consequent to the spread of the virus has been close scrutiny of our healthcare delivery system and our threadbare social safety net. As the virus numbers rise and cities are virtually shut we are reading of comparisons of our healthcare and welfare systems with those of Sweden, Germany, South Korea, and Denmark and we find that we come out lacking—notably in delivery of healthcare.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of which the U.S. is one of 36 member states, says the U.S. spends under one-fifth of its gross domestic product on social programs like unemployment insurance, pre-school and eldercare, antipoverty programs, and healthcare, placing it in the bottom half of member countries.

In contrast, Germany spends one-quarter of its GDP on such programs and the French one-third. The member countries are democratic, free-market economies. But without exception, save the United States, welfare is treated as a social good and not something to be demonized.  You can name the country—Ireland, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany—and there is a social contract built into the system. The old, the young, the infirm, the indigent, are widely protected.

But in the U.S., most prominently since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the needy, the young, the old, the infirm have been portrayed as free-loaders, moochers, swindlers. Before he was president, in the 1976 presidential campaign, Reagan made much of the “welfare queen,” Linda Taylor, a black woman on the southside of Chicago who was arrested for welfare fraud for receiving benefits under multiple aliases.

She had, incidentally, committed a number of other crimes, apart from bilking the welfare system. She became a symbol not only for underserving use of social spending, but also of freeloading blacks robbing from the pocketbooks of “hardworking” whites. Finding this a useful vote generator, Reagan as president would up the ante with his pronouncement that the “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” This became the mantra for generations of Republican leaders, but it was nothing new in our political discourse.

The irony is that, as Porter masterfully documents in his book, whites are “the biggest beneficiaries of public spending on social programs.” But it is the perception of those programs as being handouts to minorities that has stigmatized government programs as a whole, with the paradoxical result that “skimping on a system of social welfare that they [lawmakers] viewed as an illegitimate handout to the black and brown, they were undermining everybody in America.”

But this is not simply a matter of party politics. And it is not entirely explained by the Republican-Democrat divide. In fact, one of the icons of the liberal wing of the Democratic party played a key role in this stigmatism of the black and poor. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an academic turned politician, served as senator from New York for nearly 30 years. It was Moynihan, Porter writes, who as an aide to Lyndon Johnson and later Richard Nixon, before he was a senator, “provided the intellectual foundations for the conservative attack on the welfare state.” In his study that was to become the report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan made the case against the social safety net promoted in LBJ’s War on Poverty and depicted welfare as “the face of a dysfunctional, irresponsible black family.”

Moynihan contended that Aid to Families with Dependent Children, set up under Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935 (and ultimately dismantled by Bill Clinton) set black families up in a cycle of dependency, ultimately hurting them rather than helping them. The main problem with black poverty was irresponsible black men, who routinely abandoned women and the children they left them with. To break the poverty trap, the Moynihan report suggested that “black families simply had to get their act together.”

Incidentally, more whites than blacks were beneficiaries of the program, but this didn’t prevent this philosophy from “cementing welfare in the American consciousness as an effort to reward low-income black families for not adhering to white middle-class work and family values.”  Porter observes. This doctrine, embraced recently by Paul Ryan, former Republican Speaker of the House, is often known as “blaming the victim.” (Moynihan would later claim his findings were misinterpreted.)

From FDR’s time unto the present, powerful congressional committees have been dominated by white Southerners who routinely threatened to withhold votes on safety net legislation and in the case of the Affordable Care Act, Obama Care, succeeded in blocking a single Republican from voting for the bill. And even now, in the midst of the Corona virus, they have introduced into the courts measures to nullify the entire program. Porter quite persuasively contends that racism underlies this and other measures to prevent social welfare plans from ever coming to fruition.

Yet Porter says that “whatever white Americans think, they are as a group the biggest beneficiaries of public spending on social programs.” For example, he writes “Tax credits and government assistance programs benefited 6.2 million whites without a college degree in 2014, compared with 2.8 million black Americans and 2.4 Hispanics of similar educational backgrounds, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Options.”

In a May 19 column in the Los Angeles Times economics writer Michael Hiltzik wrote in a piece titled “Our Lack of Sick Leave Is Harmful” that of the member countries of the United Nations 181 provide uniform paid sick leave in some form and eleven do not. The U.S. is among the eleven., along with Tonga, Nauru and Somalia. The consequences of the lack of uniform sick leave are felt as the virus deaths mount. “Without nationwide paid sick leave, keeping people at home to suppress the coronavirus is much harder,” Hiltzik says. He refers to Jody Heymann of the World Policy Analysis Center of the University of California at Los Angeles who says in a recently published study of worldwide sick leave policies that “we are incredibly isolated.” Heymann says that in a time of crisis, with paid sick leave workers “who have mild symptoms of infectious diseases but could readily spread it to others who might get severely ill, would stay at home

Additional, Heymann says, “Among high-income countries, two-thirds provide sick leave for the self-employed and 42% cover part-timers.”

And contrary to folk wisdom, these countries don’t pay significantly more in taxes to cover such programs. What they do have is graduated tax structures that tax wealth to a higher degree than does the U.S. They also spend less on the military.

In this well-documented book Porter pokes some holes in the record of the icon of mid-20th century liberalism: FDR. Roosevelt, he writes only “achieved the consensus needed to build the first stages of an American welfare state by limiting its benefits to white America.” He built a welfare state “that remains ensnared to this day in the prejudices he failed to stare down.” In one of the most critical programs established by the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act passed three years later, both domestic workers and farm workers were excluded. The NAACP at the time argued that this decision excluded two-thirds of black workers. “Social Security, Charles Houston, a board member of the civil rights organization told the Senate Finance Committee that Social Security looked ‘like a sieve with holes big enough for the majority of the Negroes to fall through.’ ”

In her Pulitzer prize winning book on FDR and his extraordinary first lady Eleanor, No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes “Franklin tolerated Eleanor because she represented the more generous, idealistic side of his own nature, the humanitarian values he himself held but felt unable to act upon in the context of the Southern dominated Congress.” In Southern manipulating of the Social Security Act, Porter writes, “Congress stripped the Social Security Board’s supervisory controls. States got to decide which people were ‘suitable’ to get aid. Southern blacks, of course got less.” In effect, “federal programs that were not explicitly racist turned out to be racist in practice because they gave states control over federal money.”

This has trickled down to the present day with states opting out of Medicaid expansion that would be subsidized by the federal government.

Porter’s 30 years of reporting for a number of publications including the Wall Street Journal as well as the Times took him from Tokyo and London, to Mexico City and Brazil, to a stint on the editorial board of Times and for six years as the Economic Scene columnist. He developed a world view in which he saw that “the countries most successful in dealing with globalization are the ones that have the richest, most robust safety nets.” The social safety net, he writes, “including what Americans call welfare, is the tool rich societies use to allow workers to cope with economic risk.”

We don’t know of course the long-term consequences of the Corona virus. Does it present an opportunity to rethink how we look at the safety net? Will it result in an opportunity to reboot a medical delivery system that is far from egalitarian and in which we lack hospital beds, ventilators, masks, swabs? Unfortunately, Porter’s investigation, coming weeks before the virus, doesn’t leave him optimistic. He concludes: “American politicians take pride in offering a cold shoulder to their fellow citizens.”

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