Tag Archives: food stamps

When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About

8 Oct

Much has been written about the fight over the social safety net. Many say that Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president,” and Mitt Romney lying about the President dropping the work requirement in welfare is dog whistle racism meant to gin up a base they’ve spent 50 years building with racist appeals to civil rights backlash.

I agree. But I also think there’s something missing from that argument. We have, it seems to me, become so focused on trying to demonize conservatives as racists that we are missing just how fundamental racism has always been to the structure of the welfare state and, what’s more, what all the fuss over means-based government entitlements is really all about.

In order to understand what’s at the base of all of this fighting, one need only remember back to when welfare was white.

Gary Delgado and Rebecca Gordon write in From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor,

At first, welfare was based on a specific, if unarticulated, ideology of gender roles and race. Its framers expected that white women’s primary responsibility would be child rearing and unpaid domestic labor, while white men would engage in paid labor as their families’ “breadwinners.” Based on this division of labor with the family, paid work was expected to provide a “breadwinner wage” – a wage that would support the paid worker, his wife, and their children. With the introduction of welfare, the government assumed financial responsibility when no other breadwinner was available. White widows were cast as “deserving damsels in distress.”

Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), what we think of as welfare, was introduced as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also provided social security and unemployment insurance. At its inception, AFDC didn’t anticipate the participation of women of color, especially Black women. The intent of the program was to keep white women out of the workforce so they could fulfill their role as mothers.

Whites didn’t consider the value of Black women to their own families, but instead focused on their value to the white-owned businesses and white households that employed them. Black women were expected to work, and in highly exploitative jobs that few whites would ever take. And welfare was designed to avoid interfering with their availability as workers. This is why some welfare offices in the South stopped providing aid to Black families during cotton picking season.

In subsequent generations, as people of color won access to welfare, the program changed, as did our ideas about welfare recipients. The political debate shifted from how to provide for the needy as a way of serving the common good, to how to control the deviant behaviors of recipients who were cast as lazy, dishonest, promiscuous moochers. The sentiment driving the post-integration discussion of welfare can be summed up the by the title of the act that reformed welfare under Clinton: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That Act assumes that recipients are alienated from work because of their dependency on welfare, rather than because they are denied all but the most onerous, low-paid and humiliating work. To reconcile them to work, time limits and penalties were imposed on recipients to push them into the workforce. But the workforce isn’t where many former recipients end up. Instead they lose their benefits without finding work.

So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of convict leasing which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national.  It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.

But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.

The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.

This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.

That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.

We All Live On Food Stamps

17 Jul

Last week’s Congressional proposal to significantly cut the food stamps program has upped the volume on the debate over the role of government in ending hunger in America. Sadly, while there is much to talk about, most of what’s being said on the issue by politicians is, frankly, dumb, and overlooks the broad, society-wide implications of cutting food stamps.

Among the most idiotic of rants against the program came from Arizona GOP Congressional candidate Gabriela Saucedo Mercer who posted the following on her Facebook page:

Can I get a WTF?

But since Saucedo Mercer is just a candidate, I went looking to see what office holders are saying and found this choice quote from Congressman Rand Paul (R-KY) –

“…we’re now asking to spend $750 billion on food stamps…When we ask this, we need to remember that recently a woman in Chicago faked the birth of triplets in order to receive $21,000 in food stamps.”

“We need to remember that millionaires, including Larry Ficke, who won $2 million, are still receiving food stamps because he says he has got no income. He has got $2 million but no income.”

“It’s out of control. It’s not about helping those in need. It’s about being wise with the taxpayer dollars and not giving people $20,000 a year in food stamps.”

Yup. That’s right. Shades of Ronald Reagan’s Chicago welfare queen.

For the sake of full disclosure, I was once a recipient of food stamps. To add to my already biased perspective as a former recipient, I was also once a food stamps eligibility worker. I am a fan of food stamps. And, I also know a thing or two about the program.

I went online and to a SNAP office to get an update. Here’s what I learned –

About 45 million people receive food stamps. That’s about 14% of the American population. For 6 million Americans, food stamps is their only income. 55% of food stamp households include children. 14% include a disabled member. 9% include someone over the age of 60.

The long and short of it is that food stamps go to the most vulnerable sectors of our population.

It’s estimated that about 1% of food stamps are illegally trafficked. That’s a ratio of 1 dollar trafficked for every 99 spent feeding the hungry.

Given the vulnerability of food stamps recipients (especially children who suffer rather than benefit when food stamps are trafficked), you’d think Congress would address food stamp fraud as a 1% problem rather than propose punishing everyone without any plan b for addressing starvation.

But ridiculousness seems to be the rule rather than the exception in the fight over food stamps. For instance, in order to receive Rand Paul’s “$20,000 a year” in assistance, a family in New York has to have 14 members. Why bother getting a job if you can have 12 kids in order to make to make $119 of food stamps a month per family member, right?

And what are the implications of all this bull that’s being slung by political leaders?

The largest group (about 41%) of people on food stamps is white. That’s about 8% of white folks in the U.S. Meanwhile, a quarter of food stamp households is headed by African Americans. That’s about 9 million people in a community suffering from a 14.4% unemployment rate. Cuts to Food Stamps will hurt poor people in general, for sure, especially those who live in rural areas where food stamps helps to buoy the diversity of foods available at markets. But cuts to food stamps will have catastrophic implications for African Americans in particular who have been living in depression conditions since before the economic crisis.

Yet to hear folks talk about it, you would think that the people most affected by food stamps are business owners and white middle class voters.

So, all long as that’s fodder for debate, let’s be clear. Those folks are also affected. In general, about 10% of groceries in the U.S. are purchased with food stamps. That’s a big deal to farmers and grocers who rely on that income to stay in the game.

And for poor communities, the stimulative impact is magnified. Where I grew up, between 25 and 50% of grocers’ incomes came from food stamps. Those stores would go out of business without the program, costing jobs and worsening the already serious problem of food insecurity in poor communities.

Moreover, given how low the minimum wage is, and how dependent many businesses are on temporary and part-time workers, food stamps ends up being a subsidy to business. How else are workers supposed to be able to make it on low wage jobs if not for government food assistance?

Given this reality, painting food stamp recipients as undeserving (or even as annoying wildlife) may be good for the political prospects of conservatives, but it’s bad for the rest of us.

Time to speak up. We all live on food stamps.

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