And the Snake Oil of Scapegoating
By Holly Sklar
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
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
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 four weeks. 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 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 1984, Virtual
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 Blacks are 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
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
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
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, the proportion of Black children born to unmarried mothers
has grown because the birth rates of married Black 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
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 
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
" '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
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
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 masse into 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
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
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
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."
"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
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.
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. © 1995,