New York Times: There’s a Reason We Can’t Have Nice Things
Bryce Covert — July 21, 2022
The United States is one of six countries in the world without a national guarantee of paid parental leave. Twenty-three other countries have universal child or family allowances. We spend just 0.2 percent of our gross domestic product on child care for our youngest children, compared with an average of 0.7 percent among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In other words, paid leave, child care systems and child allowances are so common as to be banal in much of the rest of the developed world. But the United States has none of these
Why is it so much harder — right now, seemingly impossible — for our country to enact new programs that are customary in much of the rest of the world? It’s easy to blame one or two senators, but the problem runs much deeper. More or less, it comes down to our long history of racism and how it’s wormed its way into every debate over government benefits.
In a seminal 2001 paper, the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote tried to answer this very question: Why doesn’t this country have a welfare system that looks like the ones in European countries, progressively taxing those with the most wealth to redistribute resources to those with the least? Economic differences, they concluded, don’t explain it. But they did find that “racial fragmentation” has played a “major role” in keeping us from these policies in a way it hasn’t elsewhere.
They also find that while Europeans see the poor as members of their own group who are merely unfortunate, Americans see them as lazy “others.” American voters are less likely to demand that their leaders pass policies that help the least well off. “Racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately Black, unappealing to many voters,” they conclude.
The United States is not the only country that has racists and racism, of course. But our history is deeply intertwined with race, tracing back to slavery and its role in building the country. It was “often more grotesque” and more “salient” here than in other countries that had slavery, noted Zach Parolin, a senior fellow at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Other countries certainly have their divisions, but “in the U.S. it appears that the most salient dividing line is race,” Dr. Alesina, Dr. Glaeser and Dr. Sacerdote write.
Race has played an outsized role in nearly every debate over the American social safety net. Cutting out agricultural and domestic workers, who were majority Black, made it easier to win the support of Southern Democrats for Social Security legislation. Racism has long stood in the way of universal health care. Before welfare was reformed in the 1990s, Dr. Alesina, Dr. Glaeser and Dr. Sacerdote found, states with higher shares of Black people offered less generous benefits. Then President Ronald Reagan used the “welfare queen” trope to gin up racial resentment against people on cash assistance, and President Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform bill into law that was deeply shaped by Mr. Reagan’s politics and gave states broad authority over their programs.
Dr. Parolin has found that ever since, states with larger proportions of Black residents allocate fewer of the resources to direct cash assistance. Hana Brown, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, has found that state lawmakers are more likely to push through restrictive welfare policies when racial tension is high, in order to appease white voters. States with higher Black populations also have the strictest rules for unemployment insurance.
The United States has a far higher child poverty rate than most peer countries: Out of 40 countries, we rank at number 38. The main difference is that most other countries spend far more on children, often through a child allowance, but the United States didn’t have one until expanded child tax credit payments were sent out to most parents in the second half of last year. And the reason we don’t, Dr. Parolin said, is “inseparable from the racialized perceptions of who receives social assistance benefits in the U.S.” Americans believe programs like public housing, food stamps and welfare primarily serve Black people, even though whites make up the largest or an equal percentage of recipients. . . .
A thick streak of individualism has been embedded in the bedrock of the country’s values since its founding. Americans have been told to “turn first to our families, our own efforts in the labor market,” said Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia, “and turn to government only as a last resort.” We’ve relied on the private market, through employers, to deliver things like health care and paid time off, rather than the government.
Our political structures are also to blame. There have been times in the past when more webbing was added to the social safety net. But Congress “didn’t have the filibuster in the way we have the filibuster in either the Great Society or the New Deal,” said Mike Konczal, a director at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of “Freedom From the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself From the Grip of the Invisible Hand.”
. . . On top of that, our nonproportional two-party system means we haven’t developed a labor or social democratic party that stands almost exclusively for increasing the role of government in helping people get by. . . .
In the end, though, experts agree that race is the most defining factor. “Racial prejudice is a real and enduring feature of the American landscape,” Dr. Alesina, Dr. Glaeser and Dr. Sacerdote write. We’ve yet to shake that legacy, and it seeps into everything. “Racism has undermined efforts to deliver a social safety net in the U.S. for a very long time,” Dr. Brown said. It’s a hurdle we still haven’t been able to clear.
Bryce Covert (@brycecovert) is a journalist who focuses on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families.