What the ‘takers’ really want
By Harold Meyerson,
The Republican far right has concluded that Mitt Romney’s loss was due in part to his excess moderation, but Romney and the right agree that the blame also rests with the 47 percent of Americans who are “takers,” whom the Democrats wooed with governmental largess. America is no longer dominated by “traditional” small-government Americans, as Bill O’Reilly put it on a glum election night at Fox News. In behind-closed-doors talks to his donors that were recorded (and are likely to remain the only talks of his entire campaign that anyone remembers), Romney concurred.
The Romney-right analysis shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Racial minorities, the young, single women — the groups whose share of the electorate is rising — all believe that government has a role to play in increasing opportunity and enlarging the rewards of work. They tend to support a larger government that provides more services than a smaller one with lower tax levels. That doesn’t make them “takers,” however, unless you believe that public spending on schools and on a retirement fund to which American workers contribute constitutes an illegitimate drain on private resources.
Indeed, many of these so-called takers have higher rates of workforce participation than “traditional” Americans. That is, to restate this without using the barely coded terminology of the right, Latinos and Asians have higher rates of labor-force participation than whites. While the level of labor-force participation for non-Hispanic whites was 64.6 percent, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2010 data, the level for Asians was 64.7 percent and for Latinos, 67.5 percent. So which group has more “takers” and which more workers?
But these industrious minorities believe that government can foster even more opportunity. A post-election American Values Survey, conducted for the Public Religion Research Institute, asked voters whether government should promote growth by spending more on education and infrastructure or should lower taxes on businesses and individuals. The groups that constitute the growing elements of the electorate all favored the spending option — 61 percent of Latinos favored it, 62 percent of blacks, 63 percent of voters under 30 and 64 percent of single women. White voters, however, preferred the lower-taxes option 52 percent to 42 percent.
On Election Day, California voters passed a tax-increase initiativeto arrest the decimation of the state’s schools and universities, with a voter breakdown very much like that in the American Values Survey. Ending decades of voter opposition to ballot measures that increased tax rates, Californians raised taxes on incomes above $250,000 and boosted the sales tax by a quarter-cent to provide more funding to K-12 schools and the state’s public colleges and universities. While white voters split evenly on the measure, 67 percent of voters under 30 backed it, 61 percent of Asians favored it and 53 percent of Latinos supported it.
Ever since the passage of Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 in 1978 downsized California’s taxes and public sector, a majority of the state’s white voters have rejected this kind of tax-hike initiative. As California’s Latino population grew, so did a rift in the state’s voting patterns: Aging white voters opposed dozens of ballot measures for school bond authorization, while Latino voters, whose children often made up the majority in the school districts, supported them overwhelmingly — and in heavily Latino areas, they prevailed at the polls. This year, the Latino share of California voters was 23 percent, up from 18 percent in 2008; the share of Asians rose to 12 percent from 6 percent; and the share of voters under 30 rose to 27 percent from 20 percent. Confronted with this new electorate, Jarvis’s California was consigned to history’s dustbin.
One reason support for government spending on schools and the safety net is strong within these growing constituencies is that the lot of the “maker” — the hard worker who creates wealth — is declining for most Americans, particularly for young and working-class Americans. Median household income is shrinking as the share of company revenue going to wages descends and the share going to profits increases. If more private-sector workers were able to bargain collectively for wage increases, they would be less dependent on governmental income supplements and the safety net for rudimentary economic security. By all but destroying unions in the private sector, however, the same business executives who applauded Romney’s condemnation of “takers” greatly enlarged the pool of Americans who must “take” to survive. If these self-designated makers feel beleaguered by takers, they have only themselves to blame.
Read more on this debate: Dana Milbank: The Confederacy of Takers Eugene Robinson: A new America speaks