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May 3, 1999

New book documents the origins of welfare policies that haunt the nation today

By Jennifer McNulty

Blacks have always been overrepresented on U.S. welfare rolls, historically making up about 40 percent of recipients. But recent government reports show that blacks currently make up 55 percent and are taking longer to move off welfare than whites. The racial makeup of the welfare system has long been a concern, and these new figures have raised fears among federal officials that racist stereotypes will gain new momentum.

Michael K. Brown, a professor of politics at UCSC, says this link between race and America's welfare system today reflects choices made at two key moments in U.S. history: in the 1930s during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, and in the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson. Both men made critical choices regarding the scope of federal assistance programs, and their choices led to racial inequalities within the welfare state, says Brown. As a result, government programs that benefit low-income citizens have become racially stigmatized.

In his new book, Race, Money, and the American Welfare State (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999), Brown traces the central role that fiscal concerns played in determining the parameters of new government assistance programs, such as Social Security, unemployment, and job-training programs. During both periods, the nation's chief executive had broad political support for his proposals, but each man chose to weigh heavily the perceived unwillingness of the public and business to support more sweeping government aid programs. As a result, the proposals were shaped--and scaled back--in ways that created a racially stratified system.

"The book advances a fiscal theory of the welfare state," said Brown, who relied heavily on archival research at the five presidential libraries and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as well as on interviews with political advisers to Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon, to document the influences that ultimately determined national policies. "It shows how policy makers have to take fiscal realities into consideration. Both Roosevelt and Johnson had to negotiate between their democratic constituencies and their own ambitions to build the welfare state, and in Johnson's case, to expand it. It provides a window on policy making, really."

Brown asserts that Roosevelt and Johnson crafted their policy proposals to assuage the fears of business leaders and ordinary taxpayers. "Most people say that it's difficult to pass comprehensive social policies because of the fragmentation of power between the president and Congress, and between the House and the U.S. Senate," said Brown. "But at certain moments of time, including 1935-36 and 1965-66, our presidents had large Congressional majorities but acted as if they didn't. They matched their liberal social policies with fiscally conservative means and as a result, underfunded their own ambitious social policies. They had opportunities to make choices other than the ones they made."

The result is a fragmented welfare state that targets the very poor and relies heavily on privately provided health benefits, rather than a comprehensive system like those adopted in Europe. Although the result is a cheaper and more efficient form of welfare, it is "terribly stigmatic," said Brown.

Racial discrimination permeated the jobs programs of the 1930s, when the black unemployment rate was three times higher than that of whites. "During the 1930s, whites displaced blacks in the labor force, gave them work-relief benefits, and then stigmatized them for receiving relief, calling them lazy," said Brown. "It was the beginning of our racially stratified welfare state, and the same thing is happening today with whites getting off welfare faster than blacks."

Johnson had the opportunity to undo the racially stratified policies he inherited from the New Deal, but he opted not to, said Brown. Johnson's goal was to provide assistance to the poor, especially--though not exclusively--blacks. But whites shunned blacks: Labor unions established racially segregated training programs, and whites refused to participate in racially integrated programs.

Most recently, Bill Clinton's welfare reform program is a "disaster," said Brown. "It's a time bomb waiting to happen," he said. "There are lots of people who can't work, or if they can, will have great difficulty because of low skills, low education, or serious physical or mental problems. It's not clear how we will provide for people with no options."

"The result of this history is that welfare is seen as a problem of black America, and attacking welfare is seen as upholding the values of white America," said Brown, who points out that the government provides benefits far beyond Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Other support includes farm subsidies, veterans programs like the GI Bill, housing subsidies, and a host of tax subsidies like those for mortgage interest deductions and child care tax credits. "Whites benefit from the welfare state, too," said Brown. "The welfare state isn't just about AFDC, but whites refuse to see their own dependence on these social policies."

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