Days later, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) weighed in on repeal of the estate tax by saying: “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
After months of trying to convince Americans that tax cuts are all about job and GDP growth, suddenly, helping the “forgotten men and women” has given way to clearly putting them in their place. To close the deal, the GOP is redeploying the most reliable device in the in the us-vs.-them playbook: The spirit — if not the visage — of President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”
The remarks fit a rhetorical pattern that draws a straight line from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s “makers and takers” to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” to the stereotype Reagan introduced in 1976: “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.” This rhetoric seeks to divide Americans into hard workers, deserving government protection and largesse, and a second-class group of layabouts who are in poverty due to their own bad choices and lack of character. Though these expressions conform, on their face, to modern norms of race-neutrality, they are grounded in narratives, cultivated over centuries, that portray black Americans, especially black women, with suspicion and derision. These narratives create the justification for punitive and paternalistic treatment of the working poor while bestowing generous giveaways to the wealthy under the pretense of merit.
Having acted to funnel vast sums to the rich, the GOP is preparing to move forward to “welfare reform.” As President Trump put it in remarks on tax reform last month, once that’s a done deal:
“Then we will have done tax cuts, the biggest in history; health care, phenomenal health care. I know you don’t want this — welfare reform. Does anybody want welfare reform? And infrastructure. But welfare reform — I see it and I’ve talked to people. I know people, they work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who’s not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her a— off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.”
And when some Republicans say welfare, they don’t just mean cash aid to low-income families; they mean the range of programs benefiting low- and moderate-income Americans. As Politico reported recently, after Trump initially balked at the idea of reforming Social Security, former congressman and current Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney proposed cutting the Social Security Disability Insurance Program by dismissing it thusly: “It’s welfare.”
The fictional “welfare queen” trope is most closely identified with Reagan-era arguments for cutting the social safety net, but calling people irresponsible and lazy — even criminal — has always been intertwined with broader stereotypes used to rationalize racial differences in achievement and wealth as just and moral outcomes instead of the result of systemic exclusion.
Since first arriving on American shores, black Americans have been branded as criminal for resisting slavery and denied access to money and property because of their “idle, slothful” nature. Eventually, poverty itself became a legal violation with the enactment of “Black Codes” across the post-Civil War South that criminalized everything from a citizen being an “idle and dissipated person” to “misspend[ing] what they earn.”
It’s not just that we have criminalized poverty among African Americans over centuries, we’ve intentionally excluded black Americans from public policy that helped to build the wealth of the once-great (white) American middle class. In the 1930s, farmworkers and domestic workers, predominantly black Americans, were intentionally excluded from Social Security coverage for the sake of securing the political support necessary for the legislation to pass. Wealth-building initiatives, such as the Homestead Act and G.I. Bill, were administered along a racialized pattern. Restrictive residential ordinances and redlining further restricted African American access to the credit necessary to purchase homes, maintaining segregation that depressed home values in majority-black neighborhoods.
As historian Ira Katznelson explains in “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America”:
“ . . . at the very moment when a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare — insure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status — most black Americans were left behind or left out.”
“Affirmative action then was white,” Katznelson says, and when it was, welfare wasn’t seen as “welfare” at all. At one time, cash assistance to single mothers used the language of social insurance, when “mothers’ pensions” were provided in many states in the early 20th century to enable women to bring up children without waged work. Only when black families began moving out of the South and began accessing public assistance in greater numbers — and media coverage of poverty shifted to emphasize black households — did “welfare” take on the pejorative meaning it maintains today.
The consequences of this exclusion and exploitation have compounded over generations. As Mehrsa Baradaran documents in her new book, “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap”:
“When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the black community owned less than one percent of the United States’ total wealth. More than 150 years later, that number has barely budged.”
According to a new report from the Institute of Policy Studies, today, the average net worth of middle-class white earners is eight times that of middle-class black earners and 10 times that of middle-income Latino earners, while “the wealth of median Black and Latino households decreased by 75% … and 50%,” respectively, “while median White household wealth rose by 14%” from 1983 to 2013. Wealth-building policies are less overtly racialized than they were in decades past — think of Grassley’s beloved estate tax repeal and other tax-code administered subsidies. Yet by privileging existing wealth instead of creating on-ramps for new wealth creation, affirmative action continues to be white — the difference in the Trump era is that affirmative action is now very clearly also for the rich.
As the choices made within the tax reform package — and the language used to advance it — show, the number of Americans who demonstrate merit or virtue and deserve to benefit from our national wealth is being defined more narrowly.
We set the stage for this by allowing policymakers on both sides of the aisle to frame poverty as the result of personal choices for decades, which many Americans tolerated because politicians made it so clear they were talking about black people. Hatch, Grassley and Trump are showing us what happens when our long-held, racialized understandings of economic inequality and the policies they justify are taken to their illogical conclusion.
Now we’ll see how the rest of America reacts to being told they’re welfare queens, too.