I’m going to begin this article with the assumption that we’re all agreed that conservative attacks on food stamps and welfare recipients as entitlement junkies are racist. If you aren’t in agreement, you’re reading the wrong article.
These attacks have been going on for as long as civil rights reforms have assured people of color equitable access to public entitlements. Once upon a time, when welfare was white, this wasn’t an issue. Of course, back then, we thought “decent” white women should be excluded from the workforce, or at least from jobs with family wages, so when they lost their spouses we felt we were obliged to provide for their needs.
Once people of color, and black people in particular, started to win equal access to these programs (from which they’d been excluded so that they would have to work jobs that paid so poorly no white workers wanted them), we suddenly started to be concerned about “dependency.” By the 1980s, those concerns about dependency morphed into outrage when Ronald Reagan invented the fictional Chicago Welfare Queen, a black woman who he falsely claimed:
…has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting social security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000…
So, to put an exclamation mark on my original point, conservative attacks on welfare and food stamps are racist, and not just because of the smack they talk about poor people of color. They’re racist because what has always been at the heart of the welfare debate is whether or not people of color are full citizens with the right to participate in public entitlements, or whether we’re just servants of those with citizenship rights from which we are excluded, as is the case of undocumented workers.
But the fight over welfare and food stamps has taken on a new urgency in our globalized economy. As the world has changed and black people have won basic citizenship rights, including the right to wages and working conditions that meet the same legal standard as all American workers, the low wage work force in the U.S. has turned from black to brown. Undocumented workers, including Asian war refugees, are displacing black workers in the least desirable jobs. In the new economy, orange isn’t the new black; brown is.
But where did all those black workers go? For many, prison. We warehouse about a million black people in prisons and jails, many for petty non-violent crimes like possessing small amounts of illegal drugs. One out of every three black men is likely to go to prison in his lifetime. And the rest of the very poor in black and brown communities? They’re contained on programs like welfare and food stamps. Even many who have jobs live on partial assistance. For instance, the public pays about $1,000 in public benefits to supplement the low wages of every Walmart worker in America, making the Walton family ever richer while the rest of us fight over whether these workers “deserve” this help.
The justification for mass incarceration is a combination of a racist assumption of black and brown criminality, and fear of illegal drugs. The intersection of those two concerns drives mass incarceration as much as bogus fears of black male sexuality and criminality once ginned up grassroots support for racial segregation. But there’s never been a justification that society can agree upon for the massive over-representation of people of color on public assistance. That’s why the debate over whether or not to have these programs has been waged so loudly and for so long at every level of government. It’s also why some of the strongest resistance to food stamps and welfare comes out of primarily white Congressional districts that are heavily welfare and food stamps dependent. This isn’t a fight over whether we should have these programs at all. It’s a fight over whether certain people deserve to benefit from them.
But, if we don’t have public assistance programs for the poor people of color who aren’t in prison, what then? This question is growing in importance as the popularity of the war on drugs is waning and prison fatigue, as in folks being tired for paying the high cost of warehousing so many people, is growing.
Given the massive injustices that we’ve visited upon people just because we don’t know what to do with them, this is matter of importance to racial justice advocates. And this is why we should stop arguing against mass incarceration just because it’s expensive, and start arguing against it because those are real live human beings in those cells who will have service needs when released.
It’s a 21st century question that puts programs like food stamps and welfare front and center in our debate about just what to do with the servant class you once created when you decide you don’t need them anymore, but don’t want them going from waiting tables to coming to dinner.