The Snake Oil of Scapegoating

By Holly Sklar. This article is based on Holly Sklar’s latest book, Chaos or Community? Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics (Boston: South End Press, 1995) and “Back to the Raw Deal,” Z Magazine, November 1995. Sklar’s other books include Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood (co-authored) and Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management.The American Dream–always an impossible dream for many–is dying a slow death. As the systemic causes go untreated, a host of local and national leaders are peddling the snake oil of scapegoating. Many people are swallowing it, in anger and desperation.


One out of four children is born into poverty in this, the world’s wealthiest nation. That’s according to the government’s own undercounting measure. Wealth is not trickling down. It is flooding upward. The richest one percent of American families have nearly as much wealth as the entire bottom 95 percent. Such obscene inequality befits an oligarchy, not a democracy. Manhattan’s income gap is worse than Guatemala’s.

We have the highest economic inequality since 1929. For more and more Americans, the future is an endless Depression–minus the New Deal.

The politically weakest New Deal “entitlement,” Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), is the first to go. The assault was camouflaged with Big Lies about “welfare queens” and “illegitimate” children. Social Security and Medicare are being undone, beginning with the more vulnerable SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and Medicaid.

The United States grows increasingly disunited. Once-thriving communities are in decline. Instead of full employment, the United States has full prisons. The military budget continues consuming resources at Cold War levels, while programs to invest in people, infrastructure, and the environment are sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. People who should be working together to transform the economic policies that are hurting them are instead turning hatefully on each other.

Breakdown of the Paycheck

The scapegoating stereotype of deadbeat poor people masks the growing reality of dead-end jobs and disposable workers. Living standards are falling for younger generations despite the fact that many households have two wage earners, have fewer children, and are better educated than their parents.

Forty percent of all children in families headed by someone younger than 30 were officially living in poverty in 1990, including one out of four children in White young families and one out of five children in young married-couple families. If not for the increased work hours of women, married-couple families would be significantly poorer.

Real wages for average workers are plummeting–despite rising productivity. Workers’ average inflation-adjusted weekly earnings crashed 16 percent between 1973 and 1993–falling below 1967 levels. A college degree is increasingly necessary, but not necessarily sufficient to earn a decent income. Since 1990, college graduates “have been losing ground at the same rate as workers with less education,” reports the Economic Policy Institute’s The State of Working America 1994-95. The 1993 real wages of college-educated workers were 7.5 percent below their 1973 level.

In 1967, a full-time, year-round worker paid minimum wage earned above the official poverty line for a family of three. Today, these workers (mostly women) are way below the poverty line for a family of two.

For corporate executives, meanwhile, compensation has skyrocketed. The average CEO of a major corporation “earned” as much as 41 factory workers in 1960, and 149 factory workers in 1993.

Rising productivity in the 1990s, says Fortune, demonstrates that the “productivity payoff” from information technology and corporate reengineering has arrived. Profits are booming, but there has been no wage payoff for workers. Fortune 500 profits shot up 54 percent in 1994–on a sales gain of just 8 percent. How did profits rise so much faster than sales? Business Week explained in an article on third quarter 1994 profits titled “Hot Damn! They Did It Again”: “By slashing payrolls, investing in technology, or simply overhauling assembly lines, companies are making more efficient use of fewer workers. . .The huge pool of labor has a lot to do with the prevailing wage restraint. . .The unemployment statistics don’t count the roughly 4 million part-time workers who are eager for full-time jobs. In addition, the explosive increase in the number of temporary workers gives few employees much leverage in negotiating pay raises.”

Union jobs provide better wages and benefits than their nonunion counterparts, but they are fast disappearing. Full-time workers who were union members earned median weekly wages of $592 in 1994 compared to $432 for nonunion workers–a wage differential of $8,320 over 52 weeks.

“Few American managers have ever accepted the right of unions to exist,” says Business Week. “Over the past dozen years, in fact, US industry has conducted one of the most successful antiunion wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their rights to organize.” The unionized share of the workforce was just 15.5 percent in 1994.

In the words of the Labor Research Association’s American Labor Yearbook 1993: “With the possible exception of Hong Kong and South Korea, the US provides workers with less legal protection than any other industrialized country. . .[It] has the smallest proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements.” The Yearbook continues: “The US has become a cheap labor haven for global capital looking for low wage and benefit costs, high productivity, and a nonunion environment. . .For example, German firms such as BMW, Adidas, Siemens, and Mercedes are moving into the Carolinas, where huge tax breaks are available and the unionization rate is below 5 percent.”

Jobs and wages are being downsized in the “leaner, meaner” world of global corporate restructuring. Corporations are aggressively automating and shifting operations among cities, states, and nations in a continual search for lower taxes, greater public subsidies, and cheaper labor. “Cheap labor” does not mean low skill. Computer engineering and software programming are increasingly being “outsourced” to Third World and East European countries. In Business Week‘s words, “What makes Third World brainpower so attractive is price. . . .In India or China, you can get top-level [computer engineering] talent, probably with a Ph.D, for less than $10,000.”

Full-time jobs are becoming scarcer, as corporations shape a cheaper, more disposable workforce of temporary workers, part-timers, and other “contingent workers.” More workers are going back to the future of sweatshops and day labor.

Workers are increasingly expected to migrate from job to job, at low and variable wage rates, without paid vacation, much less a pension. How can they care for themselves and their families, maintain a home, pay for college, save for retirement, plan a future? How do we build strong communities? We can’t build them in economic quicksand.

Full of Unemployment

While some workers have “jobs without futures,” others have “futures without jobs.” The prevailing definition of “full employment” has become steadily less full of employment and more full of unemployment.

The US government downsizes the unemployment rate, but not the reality, much as it does the poverty rate. To be counted in the official unemployment rate you must have searched for work in the past fourweeks. If you’ve searched for work in the past year, or even the last five weeks–but not the last four weeks–then, presto, you’re not officially unemployed. The government doesn’t count as “unemployed” the millions of people who are so discouraged from long and fruitless job searches that they have given up looking. It doesn’t count as “unemployed” those who couldn’t look for work in the month before they were surveyed because they had no child care, for example. If you need a full-time job, but you’re working part-time because that’s all you can find, you’re counted as employed.

As Business Week puts it, “Increasingly the labor market is filled with surplus workers who are not being counted as unemployed.” Official Black unemployment is more than double the White rate; the Latino rate is almost double the White rate. The official Black unemployment rate averaged 14.1 percent between 1976 and 1993. Real unemployment and underemployment rates are even higher.

The situation is going to get much worse, without a major change in policies. In the late 1940s, Norbert Wiener, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mathematician who established the science of cybernetics, warned of the danger of widespread technological unemployment from automation. The high-tech cyberfuture has arrived. Trends analyst Jeremy Rifkin predicts in The End of Work that within a few decades hundreds of millions of people working globally in manufacturing, services, and agriculture could be displaced through automation, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology.

We must start using technological advances to free people for more socially productive work, and for family, community, culture, learning, recreation and so on. Without a change in course, the high-tech world will be a high-oppression world, the kind of world envisioned in stories like 1984Virtual Light,and Blade Runner. A world in which some people live in futuristic splendor, and millions live in timeless poverty. A violent world of crumbling cities sprinkled with high-tech gadgets. A world where bosses are organized and workers are not. A world of virtual reality travel and plundered natural wonders. A world in which prisons are the fastest-growing government service. A world of virtual democracy, at best, without real choice, much less accountability. Or an overtly authoritarian world of virulent demagoguery.

The Snake Oil of Scapegoating

As the American Dream has become more impossible for more people, scapegoating is being used to deflect blame from the economic system and channel anger to support reactionary political causes. Talk-show demagogues have built their careers on a rising volume of hate.

The cycle of unequal opportunity is intensifying. Its beneficiaries often slander those most systematically undervalued, underpaid, underemployed, underfinanced, underinsured, underrated, and otherwise underserved and undermined–as undeserving and underclass, impoverished in moral values, and lacking the proper “work ethic.”

Scapegoating labels like “underclass” and myths like the “culture of poverty” mask impoverishing economics. “Since 1973,” reports the Children’s Defense Fund, “most of the fastest increases in poverty rates occurred among young white families with children, those headed by married couples, and those headed by high school graduates. For all three groups, poverty rates more than doubled in a single generation, reaching levels that most Americans commonly assume afflict only minority and single-parent families.” [Italics in original.] The same was true for college graduates.

Racist and sexist scapegoating make it easier to forget that the majority of poor people are White. Scapegoating makes it easier to treat inner-city neighborhoods like outsider cities–separate, unequal, and disposable. Scapegoating encourages people to think of “the poor” as the “Other America,” Them and not Us. That makes it easier to divide people who should be working together to transform harmful social and economic policies. Makes it easier to write off more and more Americans as Untouchables. Makes it easier to leave unjust economic practices untouched.

Many White men who are “falling down” the economic ladder are being encouraged to believe they are falling because women and people of color are climbing over them to the top or dragging them down from the bottom. That way, they will blame women and people of color rather than the system.

Scapegoating makes racism and sexism politically correct. The “reverse discrimination” myth allows Whites to make the generic assumption that Blacks are unqualified, and Whites are qualified. If Blacksare hired on the job or admitted to the university, it’s affirmative action. If Whites aren’t hired or admitted, it’s reverse discrimination. If, with affirmative action’s removal, Blacks and other people of color and women are even less represented in jobs and academia, then that will be taken to show they never deserved to be there to begin with, rather than as a sign of continued discrimination.

Never mind that White males hold 95 percent of senior management positions (vice president and above). Never mind that, as the Urban Institute documented in a 1991 study–using carefully matched and trained pairs of White and Black young men applying for entry-level jobs–discrimination against Black job seekers is “entrenched and widespread.” An earlier study documented similar discrimination against Latinos.

Discrimination against women is pervasive from the bottom to the top of the pay scale, and not because women are on the “mommy track.” Fortune reports “that at the same level of management, the typical woman’s pay is lower than her male colleague’s–even when she has the exact same qualifications, works just as many years, relocates just as often, provides the main financial support for her family, takes no time off for personal reasons, and wins the same number of promotions to comparable jobs.”

Susan Faludi writes in Backlash: “In a 1990 national poll of chief executives at Fortune 1000 companies, more than 80 percent acknowledged that discrimination impedes female employees’ progress–yet, less than one percent of these same companies regarded remedying sex discrimination as a goal that their personnel departments should pursue.”

Discriminatory pay for women and people of color is not called robbery, but that’s what it is. The State of Working America 1994-95 reports that a Black worker with less than nine years’ experience earned 16.4 percent less in 1989 than an equivalent White worker (in terms of experience, education, region, and so on). The gap has widened greatly since 1973, when Blacks earned 10.3 percent less. “In terms of education, the greatest increase in the black-white earnings gap was among college graduates, with a small 2.5 percent differential in 1979 exploding to 15.5 percent in 1989.”

Blacks have been hit hardest by corporate and government “downsizing.” During 1992, for example, the federal government fired Black workers at more than twice the rate of Whites. The San Jose Mercury News editorialized, “It’s not that they have less education, experience or seniority. The difference has nothing to do with job performance. A new federally sponsored study shows that blacks are fired more often because of their skin color.” Blacks, who were 17 percent of the executive branch workforce in 1992, were 39 percent of those dismissed.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has also commented on federal employment racism: “Add to these findings numerous other studies that show the same, disturbing trends in both the public and private sector and it is clear that something is seriously amiss with race relations in the American workplace.”

The US Constitution once counted Black slaves as worth three-fifths of Whites. Today, Black per capita income is three-fifths of Whites. That’s an economic measure of racism. The Latino-White ratio is even worse.

Blaming Women for Illegitimate Economics

Women are scapegoated as producers and reproducers of poverty. Never mind that impoverished women don’t create poverty any more than slaves created slavery.

Historically, “women have been viewed as the breeders of poverty, criminality and other social problems,” observes Mimi Abramovitz, professor of Social Policy at the Hunter College School of Social Work. “From the ‘tenement classes’ of the mid-1800s and the ‘dangerous classes’ of the 1880s, to Social Darwinism and eugenics, to Freudian theories of motherhood, to Moynihan’s ‘Black matriarchy’ and today’s ‘underclass,’ society blames women for the failed policies of business and the state.”

Liberals have joined with conservatives in the crusade to restigmatize motherhood outside marriage. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala told Newsweek, “I don’t like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong.”

The awful labeling of children as “illegitimate” has again been legitimized. Besides meaning born out of wedlock, illegitimate also means illegal, contrary to rules and logic, misbegotten, not genuine, wrong–to be a bastard.

Imagine labeling married-couple families as pathological breeding grounds of patriarchal domestic violence, or suggesting that women should never marry, because they are more likely to be beaten and killed by a spouse than a stranger. As the Journal of Trauma reported, “Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women and accounts for more visits to hospital emergency departments than car crashes, muggings, and rapes combined.” Nationally, about a third of all murdered women are killed by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners (less than a tenth are killed by strangers); “men commonly kill their female partners in response to the woman’s attempt to leave an abusive relationship.”

Single mothers and their children, especially Black women and children, have become prime scapegoats for illegitimate economics. “The bodies of black women became political terrain on which some proponents of white supremacy mounted their campaigns,” wrote Ricki Solinger in Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe V. Wade. And “the black illegitimate baby became the child white politicians and taxpayers loved to hate.” So it goes today.

Never mind that “if one compares the actual poverty rate in 1993 to what the poverty rate would have been that year if the proportion of people living in female-headed families had remained at the same level as in 1977, one finds the poverty rate would be little changed.” That according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, Welfare, Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing, and Poverty. In 1992, approximately 58 percent of all officially poor children lived in single-parent families–the same figure as 1977.

Being married is neither necessary nor sufficient to avoid poverty. The official 1994 poverty rates for married-couple families with children under 18 were nearly 8 percent for Whites, over 11 percent for Blacks, and 24 percent for Latinos! The overall poverty rate for children in the families of married couples under 30 climbed from 8 percent in 1973 to 20 percent in 1990.

The typical women behind the rise in never-married mothers in the 1980s, explains the General Accounting Office (GAO), “differed from the stereotype: They were not unemployed teenaged dropouts but rather working women aged 25 to 44 who had completed high school.” Contrary to image, theproportion of Black children born to unmarried mothers has grown because the birth rates of marriedBlack women have fallen so dramatically. It’s also important to understand that many children born “out of wedlock” are born into two-parent families. There has been a large rise in the number of families composed of unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, with children.

The proportion of households headed by women has been rising in all regions of the world. As of 1991, the number of births to unmarried women as a percentage of all live births was 48 percent in Sweden; 47 percent in Denmark; 30 percent in the UK, France, and the United States; and 29 percent in Canada. None of the other countries have US proportions of poverty. Instead of rooting out discrimination, encouraging adequate wages, promoting full and flexible employment, and implementing the kind of child care and other family supports common in numerous countries, many US policy makers are busily blaming women for their disproportionate poverty. According to the United Nations Human Development Report 1995, American women are worse off than those in 30 other countries when it comes to women’s nonagricultural wage as a percentage of men’s.

While more and more men are being impoverished in the current economy, it is even harder for women to work their way out of poverty. Women working full-time, year round, still earn only 72 cents for every dollar earned by men. They don’t pay 72 cents on the dollar for rent, or food, or child care, or anything else.

The fact that many female-headed households are poorer because women are generally paid less than men is taken as a given in much poverty policy discussion, as if pay equity were a pipe dream not even worth mentioning. Back in 1977, a US Labor Department study found that if working women were paid what similarly qualified men earn, the number of poor families would decrease by half. A 1991 GAO study found that “many single mothers will remain near or below the poverty line even if they work at full-time jobs. Problems they are likely to face include low earnings; vulnerability to layoffs and other work interruptions; lack of important fringe benefits such as paid sick leave and health insurance; and relatively high expenses for child care.”

Looking at the 1990-92 period, the Census Bureau reported that men who left a full-time job or were laid off, and then found another full-time job, saw their paychecks drop from an average of $456 to $312 per week. Women’s wages fell from an average of $321 weekly to an even more meager $197. Among the men, an estimated 37 percent had employer-provided health insurance in their old jobs, but only 25 percent did in their new jobs. Among women, only 23 percent had health benefits in their old jobs, and only 14 percent had health insurance in their new jobs.

Most mothers work outside the home as well as inside. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at school hours and the scarcity of after-school programs and affordable day care.

Corporations have made a mockery of women’s demand for equal employment by lowering real wages so that it increasingly takes two incomes to support a family. More and more women are being told they must work the double day inside the home and outside it, or be cast to the shelters, the prisons, and the streets. Not enough jobs, much less jobs paying living wages? Tough. The right to have a baby, and the right not to have a baby, are both under assault.

Ending Welfare, Extending Poverty

Racist and sexist scapegoating have come together most viciously in the rollback of welfare. The demonization of the “welfare mother,” says Rosemary Bray, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review whose family received welfare when she was a child, reinforces the patriarchal notion “that women and children without a man are fundamentally damaged goods” and allows “for denial about the depth and intransigence of racism.” It allows those benefiting from rising economic inequality to shift the blame for the system’s failures in producing sufficient jobs and income on supposed personal failures, such as deficient “work ethic.”

AFDC has lagged way behind the rising pace of people in poverty, especially children. Two-thirds of AFDC recipients are children. The number of AFDC child recipients as a percentage of children living below the official poverty line fell from a high of 81 percent in 1973 to 63 percent in 1992. About 38 percent of families receiving AFDC are White, 37 percent are Black (a lower percentage than 1973), 19 percent are Latino, three percent Asian, and one percent Native American. There are disproportionately more people of color on welfare because disproportionately more people of color are impoverished, unemployed, and underemployed, and they have disproportionately less access to other government income support programs, such as unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and Social Security.

In the stereotype world, the exceptions make the rule: the stereotypical “welfare mother” is a “baby having babies.” For example, in the “Replacing Welfare with Work” chapter of Mandate for Change, the Democratic Leadership Council’s blueprint for the Clinton presidency, the only age reference is to the “15-year-old welfare mother with a new baby.” In reality, 0.1 percent of mothers receiving AFDC are 15 or younger. That’s not 10 percent. Not one percent. But one-tenth of one percent. Less than four percent are 18 or younger. A 1994 US GAO report reviewing the 1976-92 period observes: “In 1992, never-married women receiving AFDC were less likely to be teenage mothers. They were also older and better educated than never-married women receiving AFDC in 1976.”

Contrary to “welfare as a way of life” stereotype, the typical AFDC recipient has one or two children and “is a short-term user” of AFDC, in the words of the congressional Green Book. Long-term recipients have greater obstacles to getting off welfare, such as lacking prior work experience, a high school degree, or child care, or having poor health or disabilities, or caring for a child with disabilities.

Also contrary to stereotype, most daughters in families which received welfare do not become welfare recipients as adults. The myth of an intergenerational Black matriarchy of “welfare queens” is particularly disgusting since Black women were enslaved workers for over two centuries and have always had a high labor force participation rate and, because of racism and sexism, a disproportionate share of low wages and poverty.

AFDC benefits have been chopped repeatedly as if, once you have too little money, it doesn’t matter how little you have. Between 1970 and 1994, the median state’s maximum monthly benefit for a family of three was slashed nearly in half (47 percent), adjusting for inflation. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “Combined [1994] AFDC and food stamp benefits for the average AFDC family of three was $664 per month (about $8,000 per year), or about two-thirds of the poverty line.” Until 1979, all families receiving AFDC were eligible for food stamps; in 1993, 11 percent received none. And, contrary to common belief, fewer than one out of four families receiving AFDC live in public housing or receive any rent subsidies.

Human service advocates warn of a race to the bottom among states in welfare benefits–at the same time there is a race to the bottom in wages. In the words of Liz Krueger of the New York-based Community Food Resource Center, “New Hampshire is rushing to pass welfare ‘reform’ for fear that recent benefit cuts in Massachusetts will induce a northward move among potential welfare recipients. Connecticut has announced their goal of having the ‘toughest national standards for eligibility.'”

How low can they go? All the way down to Mississippi’s $120 maximum monthly benefit for a three-person family–and below. Think about that. A monthly $120 amounts to $1,440 per year for a family of three. When food stamps were added to AFDC in Mississippi, the combined benefit amounted to only 43 percent of the official poverty line. How do you survive on that?

As Robert Kuttner commented in a Boston Globe op-ed, “States’ rights, once a code word for discrimination and backward social policy, are in vogue again. But Justice Louis Brandeis, author of the phrase that states could be ‘laboratories of democracy,’ warned simultaneously against a ‘race to the bottom.'” If states had been left to their own devices in earlier decades, malnutrition would be common and rivers around the country would still be burning.

Scapegoaters have stoked anti-welfare anger by pretending that AFDC is a major drain on public money. The gap between image and reality is vast. A poll of 1994 voters found that one out of five believed that welfare was the largest federal government expense, larger even than defense. AFDC spending since 1964 has amounted to less than 1.5 percent of federal outlays. In 1994, it was about one percent. Soon, it will be far less.

Have They No Decency?

History will record that Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it,” and allowed the right to end welfare. It was Clinton who said that we “shouldn’t pay people for doing nothing”–as if raising children is doing nothing. It was the Clinton Administration that “freed 34 states from federal rules,” to use Clinton’s proud words. States were freed to be more mean and miserly. Free to cut families off after two years whether or not work is available, and to deny any aid to children conceived while the family was receiving AFDC benefits.

You know that “welfare reform” spells disaster when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan–who sowed the seeds long ago with his “Black matriarchy” malarkey–sounds like Joseph Welch at the McCarthy hearings. Welch told McCarthy: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness. . . .Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Speaking from the Senate floor during the welfare bill debate, Moynihan lamented, “Are there no serious persons in the administration who can say, ‘Stop, stop right now. No, we won’t have this’?”

Moynihan asserted, “If this administration wishes to go down in history as one that abandoned, eagerly abandoned, the national commitment to dependent children, so be it. I would not want to be associated with such an enterprise, and I shall not be.” He later added, “There is such a thing as resigning in government, and there comes a time when, if principle matters at all, you resign. People who resign on principle come back; people whose real views are less important than their temporary position, ‘their brief authority,’ as Shakespeare once put it, disappear.” It is long past time for administration officials like Donna Shalala, a former chair of the Children’s Defense Fund, to resign on principle rather than use their brief authority to help disappear welfare.

The Democrats have sold out so shamelessly that conservative columnist George Will looks good by comparison. Before the Senate vote, Will wrote: “Phil Gramm says welfare recipients are people ‘in the wagon’ who ought to get out and ‘help the rest of us pull.’ Well. Of the 14 million people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, 9 million are children. Even if we get all these free riders into wee harnesses, the wagon will not move much faster. Furthermore, there is hardly an individual or industry in America that is not in some sense ‘in the wagon,’ receiving some federal subvention. If everyone gets out the wagon may rocket along. But no one is proposing that. Instead, welfare reform may give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘women and children first.'”

Actually, that phrase has been employed for quite a while in the effort to stop the backlash George Will has been a party to. It’s a sad commentary on how far the political spectrum has shifted rightward that Will can now employ it.

The anti-welfare bill passed the Senate, 87 to 12, with only one Republican and 11 Democrats (Akaka, Bradley, Kennedy, Kerrey, Lautenberg, Leahy, Moseley-Braun, Moynihan, Sarbanes, Simon, and Wellstone) opposing it. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun remarked, “This bill takes a Pontius Pilate approach to federal responsibility. We are washing our hands of our responsibility to poor children.”

Among those abdicating responsibility were her Democratic Senate sisters Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Mikulski, and Patty Murray. Like Clinton, they are not only unprincipled, they are deluding themselves if they think it will help in their reelection. Does anyone think Franklin Roosevelt would have won reelection with the policies of Herbert Hoover?

“Welfare reform” ends the entitlement to cash assistance for poor children. AFDC, child care, and other programs will be folded into severely underfunded block grants to the states. The lack of entitlement status means that when your state’s welfare budget runs out–tough. If your marriage ends, your ex does not pay child support, and you need temporary help–tough. If you just lost a job that doesn’t qualify you for unemployment benefits, and you’ve got children to provide for–tough. If you are fleeing an abusive spouse–tough.

“Welfare reform” sets time limits for “moving from welfare to work.” If you can’t find a job–tough. Never mind that it is the policy of the government to keep millions of Americans unemployed. The Federal Reserve Board doesn’t care if you have a great “work ethic” when it raises interest rates to slow down the economy. As Liz Krueger puts it, “There is no time limit for the lack of jobs in the economy.”

Some 7.5 million people are unemployed according to official statistics. Remember, that means they are actively seeking work and not finding it. Millions of other Americans are working part-time because they can’t find full-time employment.

Nearly five million adults, most of them women, receive AFDC. Where are the jobs? Where is the affordable child care? Where is the right to paid family leave enabling all workers to take time off for the birth or illness of children? That’s a right in many other countries, not this one. Here, more and more women are expected to give birth one day, leave the hospital the next, leave their children wherever they can, and return to work immediately.

Over 2.5 million people who worked full-time, year round, in 1994 were below the official poverty line–the threshold that supposedly marks subsistence. In reality, as John Schwarz and Thomas Volgy show in their book on the working poor, the poverty line is set way too low to cover basic human needs, such as food and housing, much less child care. Low-income families spend, on average, more than one-fifth of their income on child care; families below the official poverty line spend more than one-fourth. One out of four officially poor children live in families in which parents worked full-time, year round. Many parents with young children cannot work full-time inside the home and full-time outside it.

Greed Surplus, Justice Deficit

There is no reason to sacrifice children to the false idol of the balanced budget, and every reason not to. It is a Trojan Horse from which right-wing reactionaries have insured the bipartisan rule of their slash and burn policies.

The federal budget deficit–produced by skyrocketing military spending and tax cuts for corporations and the rich–has been used as a permanent enforcer of cutbacks in social services and public works. We have a greed surplus and a justice deficit. The result is government that is ever leaner and meaner toward those with the least wealth and opportunity. Social spending will be starved during periods of economic growth and recession; recessions will be transformed into depressions.

As economist Max Sawicky explains in a report for the Economic Policy Institute, Up From Deficit Reduction: “The ideology underlying the fiscal doctrine of unlimited, unending deficit reduction is not aimed at stable prices, full employment, and greater private investment. Rather, the motivations are to reduce the size of government, to disassemble the US system of social insurance, and to maintain unyielding downward pressure on the price level. The implied economic policy is one of stagnation: a disproportionate weight is put on low inflation to the detriment of employment, investment, and general economic growth. The policy is also counter-redistributive: it favors wealth-holders at the expense of wage-earners, the elderly, and the poor. If stated outright, these goals would be manifestly unpopular, so the sales pitch for extreme deficit reduction has to focus elsewhere–on creating and perpetuating misconceptions or downright superstitions about the federal budget and the public debt.” Sawicky shows why a zero-deficit approach does more harm than good and makes the case for a policy of “sustainable deficit reduction.”

Congress is robbing impoverished children to pay for more tax cuts for the rich. So are many states. It’s an obscene orgy of greed. Conservatives have managed to confuse the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy with raising taxes in general, so that any attempts to put the tax system back on more of a sliding scale are given the politically unpopular brand “tax hikes.” In the guise of populist tax revolt, conservatives insure low taxes for those who can afford to send their kids to private day care, private school, private hospitals, and private colleges. In Europe, where taxes are higher, governments invest much more in social spending and infrastructure to assure basic human needs and more shared economic progress. One result is less crime and violence.

The United States continues to beat plowshares into swords. In the words of the Center for Defense Information (CDI), led by retired military officers, “President Clinton’s FY 1996 military budget request is a full $20 billion more in today’s dollars than America spent on the military in 1980, a time of great Cold War tension. . . .America’s military budget is nearly as large as the military budgets of all the other nations in the world combined.”

“Despite the absence of any serious threats,” reports CDI, military spending in the United States continues at the astounding rate of $5 billion every week, $700 million per day, $500,000 per minute, and $8,000 per second. Congress wants to make it even higher, giving the Pentagon money for weapons even the generals admit they don’t need.

In 1994, the federal government spent $17 billion on AFDC, child support enforcement, and child care. It will cost $31 billion to build 20 additional, unneeded B-2 bombers.

Numerous military and foreign policy specialists have called for bringing the military budget down to $175 billion, including CDI and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Arms control expert Randall Forsberg, director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, goes much further. She proposes a phased 10-year program to build a cooperative international security system with strong mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution and a commitment to “non-offensive defense,” bringing the US military budget to $87 billion, for savings of $989 billion over ten years.

With a sane budget, fair taxes, and fair economic policies, we can invest in children–the nation’s future–rather than sacrifice them on the altar of militarism and greed.

We must find a way to draw the line for decency. If we do not, the scapegoating spiral will escalate, and fewer and fewer will escape– until we are left with a country where the majority are working poor, or unemployed, or in rapidly multiplying prison cells.

Locking Up “Surplus” Labor

The United States is Number One in locking up its own people. It imprisons Black men at a much higher rate than South Africa did under apartheid. In the words of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, the United States has “replaced the social safety net with a dragnet.”

The federal and state prison populations swelled 188 percent between 1980 and 1993–though, contrary to common belief, the crime rate generally went down in that period. The real impact of “three strikes and you’re out” legislation has yet to hit. The federal and state prison populations are over half Black and Latino. The racially-biased “War on Drugs” is increasingly responsible.

Nearly one out of three Black men in their twenties is in prison or jail, on probation or on parole on any given day, the Sentencing Project reports for 1995. The great majority have been convicted of a nonviolent offense.

In an unusual editorial shortly after the Los Angeles riots, the New York Times quoted a 1990 report by the Correctional Association of New York and the New York State Coalition for Criminal Justice: “It is no accident that our correctional facilities are filled with African-American and Latino youths out of all proportion. . .Prisons are now the last stop along a continuum of injustice for these youths that literally starts before birth.” The Times observed that it costs about $25,000 per year to keep a kid in prison–not counting the high cost of prison construction. “That’s more than the Job Corps, or college,” noted the Times. A hard search for a job becomes an even harder one after you have a criminal record on your life résumé.

Studies have found discrimination in the criminal justice system at all levels. A study of California, Michigan, and Texas by Joan Petersilia, cited by Coramae Richey Mann in Unequal Justice, found that controlling “for relevant variables influential in sentencing. . .blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be sentenced to prison, with longer sentences, and less likely to be accorded probation than white felony offenders.”

It is impossible to understand why so many people of color, particularly Blacks, have a record–and why so many more will get a record–without understanding the racially-biased “War on Drugs.” Three out of four drug users are White (non-Latino), but Blacks are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug offenses and receive harsher sentences. The share of those convicted of a drug offense in the federal prison system skyrocketed from 16 percent of inmates in 1970 to 38 percent in 1986 and 61 percent in 1993–and is expected to grow to 72 percent by 1997. The percentage of drug offenders in state prisons grew from 9 percent in 1986 to 23 percent in 1993; among women prisoners, about a third are serving time for drug offenses. Many of those serving time for drug charges are nonviolent, low-level offenders with no prior criminal records. The overall arrest rate for drug possession is twice as high as for sale and/or manufacturing.

As the Sentencing Project reports, Blacks constitute 13 percent of all monthly drug users, 35 percent of arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions, and 74 percent of prison sentences. Almost 90 percent of those sentenced to state prison for drug possession in 1992 were Black and Latino. The American Bar Association found that drug arrests skyrocketed by 78 percent for juveniles of color during 1986-1991, while decreasing by a third for other juveniles.

Law officers and judges, reports the Los Angeles Times, say, “although it is clear that whites sell most of the nation’s cocaine and account for 80 percent of its consumers, it is blacks and other minorities who continue to fill up America’s courtrooms and jails, largely because, in a political climate that demands that something be done, they are the easiest people to arrest.” They are the easiest to scapegoat. Never mind that, as former drug czar William Bennett puts it, “the typical cocaine user is white, male, a high school graduate employed full time and living in a small metropolitan area or suburb.” In the words of a 1993 USA Today special report:

“The war on drugs has, in many places, been fought mainly against blacks. . . .

“[Police officials] say Blacks are arrested more frequently because drug use often is easier to spot in the Black community, with dealing on urban street corners. . .rather than behind closed doors.

“And, the police officials say, it’s cheaper to target in the black community.

” ‘We don’t have whites on corners selling drugs. . . .They’re in houses and offices,’ says police chief John Dale of Albany, N.Y., where blacks are eight times as likely as whites to be arrested for drugs. . . .We’re locking up kids who are scrambling for crumbs, not the people who make big money.”

While many of the easily spotted street corner buyers are White, as well as the big money traffickers and money launderers, you don’t have to be dealing or buying on street corners to feel the racial bias of the “drug war.” A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found both racial and economic bias in the reporting of pregnant women to authorities for drug or alcohol abuse, under a mandatory reporting law. The study found that substance abuse rates were slightly higher for pregnant White women than pregnant Black women, but Black women were about 10 times more likely to be reported to authorities. The bias was evident whether the women received their prenatal care from private doctors or public health clinics. Poor women were also more likely to be reported to authorities.

Between 1986 and 1991, the number of Black women incarcerated for drug offenses shot up 828 percent. That’s compared with 241 percent for White women and 328 percent for Latinas. A 1994 Department of Justice study of federal prisoners, summarized by the Sentencing Project, found that “women were over-represented among ‘low-level’ drug offenders who were non-violent, had minimal or no prior criminal history, and were not principal figures in criminal organizations or activities, but who nevertheless received sentences similar to ‘high-level’ drug offenders under the mandatory sentencing policies.”

Looking at federal mandatory minimum sentences, a report to Congress by the US Sentencing Commission found that “whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum.” One obscene result of federal and state mandatory minimums is that low-level offenders are routinely treated more harshly than high-level offenders because the low-level offenders can’t provide the kind of information or forfeited assets wanted by prosecutors in exchange for reduced charges and sentences.

The racial bias of the “drug war” is symbolized by the much harsher mandatory minimums for crack cocaine (for which mostly Blacks are arrested, though Whites are the majority of users) than powder cocaine (mostly Whites arrested). As the Minnesota Supreme Court found in 1991, there is no rational basis for distinguishing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Yet, in the words of the Sentencing Project, the US Sentencing Commission has “calculated that a person convicted of trafficking in five grams of crack with a maximum retail value of $750 will receive the same sentence as an offender charged with selling 500 grams of powder cocaine retailing for $50,000.”

Racial bias in the “drug war” is also evidenced by the much more lenient and, often, treatment-oriented approach to drunk drivers, most of whom are White males. You would never know that almost the same number of people are killed annually by drunk drivers as are murdered, and alcohol is associated with much more violence and homicides nationally than illicit drugs.

Earlier “drug wars” were also racially biased. As Diana Gordon writes in her book, The Return of the Dangerous Classes, “The first drug prohibition law was an 1875 San Francisco ordinance prohibiting opium and aimed at Chinese workers, who were no longer needed to bring the railroad west and who were blamed for taking jobs of whites during a depression.” The current drug war begun in the 1980s, says Gordon, is not only “a rearguard action against full equality for racial minorities,” but an instrument for “whipping young people (and often cultural liberals) back into line.”

The “drug war” has been used to justify the erosion of constitutional protections against unwarranted stops, searches, and seizures, and the rollback of other civil liberties. The rollback has been especially severe for people of color. In the words of the Los Angeles Times: “As police have moved en masseinto poor minority communities. . .their presence has meant that innocent citizens have been swept up along with the guilty. . . .Across the nation, blacks–and some Latinos–complain that their neighborhoods are barricaded, that roadblocks are set up for identification checks, that they are rousted from their apartments without warrants, that police target them with ‘stop on sight’ policies and that they are disproportionately arrested in ‘sweep’ operations for minor misdemeanors and traffic violations that have nothing to do with the drug war.”

Racist self-fulfilling prophecy is evident in the use of racial characteristics in drug suspect profiles, which guide who is stopped and searched in cars, buses, and airports.

The courts, juvenile facilities, jails, and prisons are jammed. Murderers, rapists, and other violent offenders are being released early to make way for nonviolent ones. Many judges, police officers, and prosecutors acknowledge the injustice and insanity of current policies. “Corrections” spending, the fastest growing part of state budgets, is consuming tax dollars that once went to social services such as treatment for drug addiction, education, job training, and housing.

The United States is sentencing more and more people to poverty, prison, and early death.

Democracy or Demagoguery

“Today’s Sun Belt represents a confluence of Social Darwinism, entrepreneurialism, high technology, nationalism, nostalgia and fundamentalist religion, and any Sun Belt hegemony over our politics has a unique potential. . .to accommodate a drift toward apple-pie authoritarianism.” So wrote conservative strategist Kevin Phillips in his 1982 book, Post-Conservative America.

The failed American Dream can give way to a new American fairness or a neo-fascist nig htmlare. It can happen in Europe. It can happen here.

As Sinclair Lewis warned in It Can’t Happen Here, through the voice of newspaper editor Doremus Jessup: “The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

Clinton’s favorite strategy is a well-tested failure: the best defense is a good sellout. Sell out labor; dump Lani Guinier, Joycelyn Elders, and numerous others deemed politically incorrect by rightwingers; scapegoat single mothers; make court appointments courting conservatives; and so on. Clinton and company behave like defense lawyers who plea bargain every case, no matter the particulars of guilt or innocence. Who wants a lawyer with a track record of pleading their clients “part guilty”?

The Democrats have reaped the scapegoating divisions they have sown with their moves to the right on welfare, immigration, and so on. They divide their electoral base of workers, Blacks, and women, and wonder why Republicans conquer. It’s an impossible process of multiplication by division.

Right-wing politicians won in 1994 because their base (mostly religious conservative Republicans, but also like-minded Independents and Democrats) was mobilized to turn out in force–and there was no Perot to divert them–while the more liberal and moderate Democratic base was demoralized and turned off.

According to a report by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, the proportion of the 1994 electorate (not a representative sample of the larger population) calling themselves conservative increased 7 points nationally. Nearly one in five voters (19 percent) identified themselves as part of “the religious right political movement.”

During the 1980s, Reaganites were the shock troops of global corporate capitalism, lowering wages, busting unions, scapegoating Blacks and women, rolling back communism, socialism, and social democracy abroad–and rolling back welfare and social services and democracy at home. In many ways, rightwingers continue to serve that shock troop purpose. But as shock troops and their leaders grow more powerful, they have more power to implement their more radical agenda, an agenda that is not fully shared by global corporate elites–and can ultimately threaten them.

To put it simply, corporate executives want their own oligarchy, not the Christian Coalition’s theocracy.

In a 1992 New York Times Magazine article, Kevin Phillips reflected on the contemporary “politics of frustration.” He noted “the radicalization of the usually nonideological midsection of the population because of cultural and economic trauma,” and warned: “This can lead to dangerous politics, the most terrible example being Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, when hard times and a collapsing center produced Adolf Hitler.”

Phillips continued:

“One measure of the depth of the current frustration in America is that [David] Duke could win the support of a majority of white Louisiana voters in two straight statewide elections, notwithstanding television advertisements showing him in Ku Klux Klan robes and swastika armbands.

“[Presidential candidate Patrick] Buchanan took many of the same positions as Duke on immigration, race, welfare, trade and nationalism, albeit more moderately. And the charges of nativism, fascism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism inspired by his statements had little effect on his support. When a radicalizing middle class regards the establishment as bankrupt and the status quo as intolerable, normal standards fall quite easily.”

Scapegoating fuels fear and fear fuels scapegoating. It is not far-fetched to see the seeds of “ethnic cleansing”–the widely-adopted euphemism for genocide in the former Yugoslavia–in the widespread support given California’s Proposition 187. Land plundered from Mexico is called Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona–while undocumented Mexican immigrants are called “illegal aliens.” The anti-“alien” scapegoating is spreading rapidly to legal immigrants. Think about how successful the Big Lie technique has been: how easy it’s been to scapegoat women on welfare. How easy it’s been to roll back civil liberties with the excuse of fighting the racially biased “War on Drugs.” How easy it’s become to spend more money on prisons and less on education. How easy it’s been to relabel millions of children as illegitimate.

Think about how far to the right the political “center” has shifted. Views once considered extremist far right are now considered ordinary, views once considered centrist are now considered ultraliberal, and views genuinely to the left are largely absent in the mass media. A nation that committed genocide against Native Americans, enslaved Blacks, and imprisoned Japanese Americans should never doubt authoritarianism can happen here.

Today, with little opposition, a right-wing majority in Congress is voting away pieces of the Bill of Rights and cornerstones of 20th-century progress. How would the nation enter the 21st-century with a right-wing president, a right-wing Congress, and a reactionary Supreme Court?

It is time to strip away the camouflage of scapegoating from the upward redistribution of wealth. It is time to stop pretending the problem is people with cultures of poverty and not the current economy of impoverishment. It is time to pose a true alternative to the dangerous false populism of the right.

It is time to stop building more prison cells, and instead build the preventative foundation of income security, child care, and education. It is time to adopt an Economic Bill of Rights.