The Racialization of Deficit Cutting

Race is increasingly infusing the current debate over federal spending and the soaring national debt. This is what lies at the heart of accusing the Tea Party of "racism."  Needless to say, this racial element bodes poorly for solving our debt crisis.

The modern civil rights movement was initially about personal liberty -- from attending schools of one's choosing, to sitting wherever one chose on a bus and being able to vote regardless of skin color, among myriad other liberties. Yes, expanded federal power was vital but intercessions such as affirmative action were, supposedly, only temporary legal steps to guarantee African Americans options heretofore available only to whites.

With time, however, relatively cheap government edicts were replaced by expensive entitlements. Expanding the Great Society's anti-poverty programs became a way of life. Opening up the housing market evolved from anti-discrimination laws to the right to government-supplied decent housing, and if that option was unobtainable, government would subsidize private housing or mandate (and guarantee) below-market home mortgages.  Laws banning racial discrimination in employment were similarly supplanted by government jobs to soak up black unemployment (blacks now comprise one out of every five non-postal federal employees).  Head Start replaced the local babysitter and mandated integration became oversize bureaucracies to assure equal outcomes.  In cities with sizable black populations, e.g., Detroit or Newark, municipal jobs became life-savers.  Washington has also repeatedly extended unemployment benefits, a benefit that disproportionately helps blacks given their higher levels of joblessness. In a nutshell, for many African Americans "civil rights" has come to mean government generosity, a generosity increasingly financed by borrowing.  

The obvious problem is sustainability, as debt replaced tax revenue. Interest costs can eventually become unbearable and lenders may just refuse to lend. Unfortunately, this fiscal predicament is now being perceived as an attack on African American civil rights. That many others, notably the military and senior citizens may have to share this belt tightening has not cooled African American outrage.

Jesse Jackson compared a possible government shutdown to the damage inflicted by the Civil War in which 700,000 Americans died. In his words, "You have those who believe in states' rights and those who believe in a more perfect union. States' right are anti-civil rights, anti-workers' right to bargain, anti-social justice, pro-rich and significantly insensitive to poor people -- that was the great divide 150 years ago and it's the great divide today in the ideological sense. Moreover, he insisted, trying to end government-by-endless-borrowing would make government "dysfunctional." An article by a Columbia University professor in a civil rights website was even more explicit: "Simply put, we can draw a straight line from the Confederacy, to the Dixiecrats, to today's tea party Republicans." Here the idea of "limited government" was merely a ruse to harm blacks while burgeoning debt-based entitlements were legitimate policies to overcome past racial injustices and bring social justice.

This is hardly a fringe view. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) website similarly affirms that the quest to escape crushing debt is an anti-black subterfuge. As one CBC member put it," It is important that everyone understands that in their proposed 2012 budget, Republicans are diverting money from programs needed by the poor, seniors and people with disabilities to corporations and the wealthy in our country." It is further argued that attempts to reverse ObamaCare means denying health care to many who are now, finally, on the verge of obtaining decent health care. In fact, in 2011 the CBC offered its own budget in the House that reversed some of President Obama's cuts but it was soundly rejected by a 3 to 1 margin. It predictably called for spending increases for education, job training and other programs to help the poor, to be paid for by upping taxes on the wealthy.  The NAACP has recently deplored America's "under-funding" of education though educational spending has dramatically increased with little to show for these extra billions (and many cities with largely black school populations are among the nation's best funded schools). This addiction to debt-fueled spending may be insatiable.  

Endless borrowing to finance a steady stream of government benefits may seem quite reasonable for many African Americans, particularly those with limited education. It is hardly surprising that after a few years of enjoying a benefit it grows into an unalienable right. Nearly half of all Americans do not pay federal taxes so subsidized housing, food stamps, Head Start and all the rest are "free" (see here). Matters might be quite different if this help required a hefty co-payment. There also seems to be what is called "the moon and the ghetto" mentality -- if the government can send a rocket ship to the moon, it can certainly fix the problems of the ghetto if it were only willing to make the expensive effort. African Americans also seem particularly prone to debt, running up larger credit card debts than whites (often double) of comparable incomes (see, for example, here). This statistical penchant may make collective debt appear "normal" and reduce the stigma possible bankruptcy. Poorly educated citizens in general may also be befuddled with terms like "billion" and "trillion," let alone the international consequences of excessive indebtedness, so all the dire warnings are just too abstract.

This racialization of budgetary downsizing makes a hard problem even more arduous.  For many Americans helping African Americans entails a moral obligation that exists independently of fiscal prudence.  Further add the difficulty generating private sector employment for many African Americans (trying to boost private sector employment via empowerment zones has proven futile).  Most clearly, linking fiscal cutbacks to an "attack" on African American civil rights automatically mobilizes a sizable congressional block of anti-cutback votes (including white legislators dependent on black voters). Resistance will hold even if budgetary hawks like Paul Ryan (R.-WI) can demonstrate that these "civil rights" programs are often wasteful, ineffectual and equally applicable to whites.  Such "wonkish" responses will hardly mitigate the moral issues let alone quiet racial demagogues like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who will continue to insist that government spending targeting blacks is the civil rights Messiah.

Less obvious, but perhaps of greater importance (though still unspeakable) is the possible link between government cutbacks and domestic violence.  Recall that many of today's programs helping blacks were a response to 1960s urban violence, and they have succeeded.  Cutting ethanol subsidies to Iowa farmers is a mere inconvenience compared to firing thousands of black teacher assistants who have few non-government job options. Significant cutbacks here will bring "cold turkey" on a grand scale and expressions like "long hot summer" may soon return. 

In the final analysis, the only practical solution may be sustaining government programs that disproportionately assist blacks, regardless of value or costs. This is hardly new: just witness how Head Start has become sacrosanct despite failing in its initial mission of boosting black academic performance via early childhood intervention. Nor have cities abandoned public housing despite their horrific problems.  But, however these dilemmas are to be addressed, they should be frankly acknowledged --Americans have become addicted to debt-fueled benefits, but African Americans will lay a special claim with great energy.

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.
Race is increasingly infusing the current debate over federal spending and the soaring national debt. This is what lies at the heart of accusing the Tea Party of "racism."  Needless to say, this racial element bodes poorly for solving our debt crisis.

The modern civil rights movement was initially about personal liberty -- from attending schools of one's choosing, to sitting wherever one chose on a bus and being able to vote regardless of skin color, among myriad other liberties. Yes, expanded federal power was vital but intercessions such as affirmative action were, supposedly, only temporary legal steps to guarantee African Americans options heretofore available only to whites.

With time, however, relatively cheap government edicts were replaced by expensive entitlements. Expanding the Great Society's anti-poverty programs became a way of life. Opening up the housing market evolved from anti-discrimination laws to the right to government-supplied decent housing, and if that option was unobtainable, government would subsidize private housing or mandate (and guarantee) below-market home mortgages.  Laws banning racial discrimination in employment were similarly supplanted by government jobs to soak up black unemployment (blacks now comprise one out of every five non-postal federal employees).  Head Start replaced the local babysitter and mandated integration became oversize bureaucracies to assure equal outcomes.  In cities with sizable black populations, e.g., Detroit or Newark, municipal jobs became life-savers.  Washington has also repeatedly extended unemployment benefits, a benefit that disproportionately helps blacks given their higher levels of joblessness. In a nutshell, for many African Americans "civil rights" has come to mean government generosity, a generosity increasingly financed by borrowing.  

The obvious problem is sustainability, as debt replaced tax revenue. Interest costs can eventually become unbearable and lenders may just refuse to lend. Unfortunately, this fiscal predicament is now being perceived as an attack on African American civil rights. That many others, notably the military and senior citizens may have to share this belt tightening has not cooled African American outrage.

Jesse Jackson compared a possible government shutdown to the damage inflicted by the Civil War in which 700,000 Americans died. In his words, "You have those who believe in states' rights and those who believe in a more perfect union. States' right are anti-civil rights, anti-workers' right to bargain, anti-social justice, pro-rich and significantly insensitive to poor people -- that was the great divide 150 years ago and it's the great divide today in the ideological sense. Moreover, he insisted, trying to end government-by-endless-borrowing would make government "dysfunctional." An article by a Columbia University professor in a civil rights website was even more explicit: "Simply put, we can draw a straight line from the Confederacy, to the Dixiecrats, to today's tea party Republicans." Here the idea of "limited government" was merely a ruse to harm blacks while burgeoning debt-based entitlements were legitimate policies to overcome past racial injustices and bring social justice.

This is hardly a fringe view. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) website similarly affirms that the quest to escape crushing debt is an anti-black subterfuge. As one CBC member put it," It is important that everyone understands that in their proposed 2012 budget, Republicans are diverting money from programs needed by the poor, seniors and people with disabilities to corporations and the wealthy in our country." It is further argued that attempts to reverse ObamaCare means denying health care to many who are now, finally, on the verge of obtaining decent health care. In fact, in 2011 the CBC offered its own budget in the House that reversed some of President Obama's cuts but it was soundly rejected by a 3 to 1 margin. It predictably called for spending increases for education, job training and other programs to help the poor, to be paid for by upping taxes on the wealthy.  The NAACP has recently deplored America's "under-funding" of education though educational spending has dramatically increased with little to show for these extra billions (and many cities with largely black school populations are among the nation's best funded schools). This addiction to debt-fueled spending may be insatiable.  

Endless borrowing to finance a steady stream of government benefits may seem quite reasonable for many African Americans, particularly those with limited education. It is hardly surprising that after a few years of enjoying a benefit it grows into an unalienable right. Nearly half of all Americans do not pay federal taxes so subsidized housing, food stamps, Head Start and all the rest are "free" (see here). Matters might be quite different if this help required a hefty co-payment. There also seems to be what is called "the moon and the ghetto" mentality -- if the government can send a rocket ship to the moon, it can certainly fix the problems of the ghetto if it were only willing to make the expensive effort. African Americans also seem particularly prone to debt, running up larger credit card debts than whites (often double) of comparable incomes (see, for example, here). This statistical penchant may make collective debt appear "normal" and reduce the stigma possible bankruptcy. Poorly educated citizens in general may also be befuddled with terms like "billion" and "trillion," let alone the international consequences of excessive indebtedness, so all the dire warnings are just too abstract.

This racialization of budgetary downsizing makes a hard problem even more arduous.  For many Americans helping African Americans entails a moral obligation that exists independently of fiscal prudence.  Further add the difficulty generating private sector employment for many African Americans (trying to boost private sector employment via empowerment zones has proven futile).  Most clearly, linking fiscal cutbacks to an "attack" on African American civil rights automatically mobilizes a sizable congressional block of anti-cutback votes (including white legislators dependent on black voters). Resistance will hold even if budgetary hawks like Paul Ryan (R.-WI) can demonstrate that these "civil rights" programs are often wasteful, ineffectual and equally applicable to whites.  Such "wonkish" responses will hardly mitigate the moral issues let alone quiet racial demagogues like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who will continue to insist that government spending targeting blacks is the civil rights Messiah.

Less obvious, but perhaps of greater importance (though still unspeakable) is the possible link between government cutbacks and domestic violence.  Recall that many of today's programs helping blacks were a response to 1960s urban violence, and they have succeeded.  Cutting ethanol subsidies to Iowa farmers is a mere inconvenience compared to firing thousands of black teacher assistants who have few non-government job options. Significant cutbacks here will bring "cold turkey" on a grand scale and expressions like "long hot summer" may soon return. 

In the final analysis, the only practical solution may be sustaining government programs that disproportionately assist blacks, regardless of value or costs. This is hardly new: just witness how Head Start has become sacrosanct despite failing in its initial mission of boosting black academic performance via early childhood intervention. Nor have cities abandoned public housing despite their horrific problems.  But, however these dilemmas are to be addressed, they should be frankly acknowledged --Americans have become addicted to debt-fueled benefits, but African Americans will lay a special claim with great energy.

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.

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