President Donald Trump’s budget and the failed American Health Care Act, or AHCA, have reopened a geyser of bad ideas about why people are poor. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) thinks Americans lack health care because they spend all their money on iPhones. Columnist Douglas Bushman defends cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the tired call to move “families off of government housing and into gainful employment.” But housing projects are full of Americans who hold down two and three jobs. They work jobs that don’t pay enough to get them out of the projects.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) responded, nonplussed, to news that the AHCA would kick 24 million Americans off insurance, saying he didn’t “define success as putting more people on government health care.” But the idea that any of us are fully independent from government support is nothing more than a myth taken from an Ayn Rand novel. In reality, everyone lives off everyone else’s money. Large majorities of white people ignore this plain fact and tell everyone else to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Government assistance, however, is more than welfare checks and subsidized housing; it also takes the form of tax credits and Social Security. Despite this fact, poor people and people of color are still stereotyped as drains on federal funds.
In Sunflower County, Mississippi, for example, your tax dollars give 262 mostly white Sunflower County farmers more than $18 million a year in subsidies. That’s more than the $16 million you pay for all 11,007 people in that same county to collect food stamps. More of your tax dollars go to one farm in Sunflower County than will feed all 6,000 students eligible for free and reduced-price school lunch annually in that county. To be precise, the total Sunflower County free and reduced-price lunch spending was $38,246 in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. In comparison, the most subsidized farm in the county received nearly $306,000 in taxpayer money in 2013.
People in Sunflower County aren’t poor because they’re buying iPhones. They’re mainly poor because of the unequal distribution of government support. Some farmers, for example, receive more from the government in one year than other workers would earn in a lifetime. Yet, farmers are not stigmatized the way women on welfare are.
Indeed, the federal government has erected a vast, unspoken middle- and upper-class welfare state. Every year, millions of Americans get a tax check from the government for buying a house, another for getting married, and another for having kids. We spend billions of dollars in corporate welfare. Yet, none of the recipients of these benefits are called “welfare queens.” Instead:
- Half of white Americans and 65 percent of Republicans say black Americans “take more than they give” overall.
- 45 percent of Republicans incorrectly think that black people are the majority of welfare recipients.
- 45 percent of white Americans also say “blacks don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty.”
Clearly, our country still has a deeply racialized view of federal entitlement programs. In the Jim Crow era and throughout the 1960s, this view was evident in both racist “vagrancy” laws and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s drafting of War on Poverty policies that assumed that black poverty stemmed from black single motherhood. The early 2000s saw economists link increased access to abortion to crime reduction and “black names” to unemployment. Even President Barack Obama’s oft-used symbol of slothfulness and apathy—“cousin Pookie” on the couch—played on a black-sounding name as a shorthand for shiftlessness. In these ways, black need, black privation, and black exigency have been pathologized, moralized, and justified through legislation, academics, and politics. Stripped of its human face, causes, and story, black need has been reduced to caricature, bromide, and punchline.
It’s against this backdrop that Trump tweeted last year that “illegal immigrant households receive far more in federal welfare benefits – than ‘native [sic] American households … I will fix it.” That’s false. Trump is neither a capitalist nor a socialist; he’s a welfare chauvinist. Trump is for big government—just maybe not for everyone. This is why Trumponomics violates free-market ideals to purportedly save Carrier jobs and proposes a more than $1 trillion New Deal 2.0 of massive government public works to employ mostly white men—as steelworkers, oil rig machinists, and construction workers. At the same time, he urges cutting Meals on Wheels, the Minority Business Development Agency, and affordable housing.
Fortuitously, our most enduring national programs contain the key to combating this welfare chauvinism. Social Security is an example. Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt always openly acknowledged that the payroll tax doesn’t pay for the program. General tax revenue is needed, too. He confessed, “Those taxes were never … [about] economics. They were politics all the way through.” The payroll tax exists to create an illusion, which one Social Security commissioner revealed is to make “workers who pay in feel that they’ve earned the benefits they get.” In reality, almost everyone gets out of Social Security much more than they paid in.
In this way, Social Security is a triumph of what Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein call “choice architecture.” Here, it gives different political constituencies self-interest in a program, so that they cannot cut it for another group without cutting it for themselves, as well. This is the reason the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—formerly known as food stamps—was put in the farm bill. The federal government pays rural Americans to grow food that it pays other Americans to buy. The program’s first administrator, Milo Perkins, said food stamps were designed this way on purpose. “We got … farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other.” Marrying food stamps to farm subsidies was done to “bridge” the “chasm” between rural, white America and urban, less white America.
White people allowing their tax dollars to go to nonwhite people is so politically fraught that the government has to do it by cloak-and-dagger and disguise. The temptation for any majority group to fall into welfare chauvinism is strong. It’s even more so with Trumpian incitement to it. Our persistently segregated country, combined with historic income and wealth inequality, requires that public policy be designed to force Americans to confront our deep interdependence and reliance on one another. Only when we understand our interconnected needs can we hope to have a multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
Charles Badger is a political strategist who’s worked in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing, and economic justice policy. He was coalitions director for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.