Friday, December 03, 2021

 RacismLogo02

Article Index

III. Effects of Racial and Economic Inequality

A. Introduction

      Economic inequality has its roots in the birth of United States. The poor have always been part of the American panoply. England profoundly influenced how America treated its poor. Colonial America inherited four principles from the English approach to poverty: (1) poor relief was a public responsibility; (2) relief was local; (3) kin responsibility denied public aid to individuals with families who could assist them; and (4) pauper children were handed over to farmers and artisans. Two institutions developed in assisting the poor as a consequence of English influences: outdoor relief and poor houses.

      Outdoor relief was “‘relief given from the public funds to the poor in their homes not including medical care.”’ It was thought to be kindly, as it did not break up poor families; economical because it aided families in supporting themselves; and pragmatic because it placated the demands for assistance that outnumbered institutions available. Outdoor relief had many critics including taxpayers resentful of paying relief to those whom they considered able-bodied. Philadelphia abolished forms of outdoor relief in 1793. Public officials and reformers found outdoor relief spawned idleness and laziness in the poor. New York reformers attempted to abolish outdoor relief in the 1820s with limited success. Poor houses developed with the growth of cities throughout the colonies. Boston built one of the first poorhouses in 1664; Phildalphia followed in 1732, and New York, in 1736. Poorhouses were a reaction to the harsh treatment the poor received in many communities. The poor were auctioned off as cheap labor, most often in country towns. States contracted with private service providers who maintained the poorhouses. Administrators placed the poor, without family or homes, into poorhouses.

      The quality of the relief depended upon whether the impoverished person was seen as virtuous or worthy. Those committed to dangerous, brutal, and demoralizing poorhouses were categorized as degraded. One had to be seen as being a worthy member of the local community to receive aid. Otherwise, the poor were shunned as vagabonds and beggars. The “deserving” and “undeserving” distinctions became apparent with the development of the modern American economy. A laissez-faire approach to poverty cultivated a view of the impoverished as weak, intemperate, indolent, deviant, and evil because of a ready supply of mobile and eager laborers present and ready to work. The deserving poor were seen as worthy of assistance and the undeserving poor were seen as morally deficient and punished for their status. Society began to treat the undeserving poor as paupers and allowed them to exist in substandard living conditions under the veil of moral degradation. Female aid recipients became the prototype of the deserving/undeserving poverty categorization.

B. Women and the Welfare State

      The poverty distinctions for women determined the depth and quality of services they received. Widows of working, productive men were the pinnacle of the morally deserving for assistance whereas unmarried women were ostracized and condemned. The welfare state began with private charities and later became funded through government grants and benefits. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, reformers waged campaigns to have benefits for “worthy” mothers. Special allowances were made for widowed mothers so that they could stay home and raise their children. Women had to endure intense scrutiny to be deemed worthy of state implemented benefits. Middle class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) social workers determined eligibility for benefits based on the mothers' household budgeting skills, drinking habits, and child-rearing practices. The reformers' and the social welfare administrators' suspicions of single mothers and immigrants were especially pernicious. Single women were not allowed to cohabitate or have sexual relations outside of marriage. Single mothers in particular were stigmatized for their status. Single mothers received no assistance and divorced women received a modicum of assistance. Social welfare administrators pressed foreign-born immigrant recipients to become “Americanized” to receive aid. They were encouraged to apply for citizenship and prepare “American” meals, while administrators frowned upon immigrants who spoke in their native languages or failed to maintain “proper” household standards. The New Deal established the federal government as the deliverer of assistance to families; nevertheless, the moralism remained.

      The 1935 Social Security Act established Aid to Dependent Children (“ADC”), and later Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“AFDC”), which allowed states to be the delivering--and screening--bodies for assistance to impoverished families. States denied single mothers assistance for not providing a suitable home and for fraternizing with men. New Deal reformers sought to recreate the patriarchal family structure of the family wage system through welfare. Women were to remain in the home taking care of the children, and the state provided for the care of family until a pension was available for widows or married men found employment to care for the families. New Deal reformers had a narrow definition of family and did not anticipate the progeny of single, never-married mothers who would be future ADC/AFDC recipients. All women did not benefit from the New Deal welfare programs. African American women faced restrictions on accessing ADC based on state restrictions. Decades later, African American women who did receive AFDC would become the lightning rod for race relations, welfare policy, and the future of the African American community.

C. The Moynihan Report and the Culture of Poverty

      Senator Patrick Moynihan drafted a report on poverty in the African American community in 1965. The report “emphasized that the socioeconomic system in the United States was ultimately responsible for producing unstable poor black families.” The Moynihan Report caused immediate controversy. The major tumult surrounding the report centered on the percentage of unwed births by African American women and Moynihan's use of terminology such as “pathology” to describe the state of African American families.

      Social conservatives focused on what they termed the “culture of poverty” and contended that values and behaviors, and not intergenerational poverty, were the root cause of African Americans' plight. The culture of poverty belief persisted as liberal social scientists retreated from academic discussions of race and poverty. Conservatives in the Reagan era sought to blame the innercity dislocation during the 1980s, after years of liberal policies, on the liberal policies themselves. George Gilder, Charles Murray, and Lawrence Mead argued that liberal policies exacerbated, rather than alleviated, ghetto-related tendencies. Liberal programs were discredited and labeled self-defeating because they ignored the behavioral problems of the underclass. Liberal social scientists did not respond, and conservative claims that were not scientifically proven were repeated and unchallenged. William Julius Wilson reopened the debate with the publication of his book, The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson refocused attention on the instability of the African American family and its role in undermining changes for African American children. Wilson distinguished the African American middle class, which he saw as advancing in socioeconomic terms, versus the African American lower class, which he saw as losing ground. Despite Wilson's work, the damage was already done. Conservatives appropriated the Moynihan Report and used it to trumpet welfare reform, citing examples of African Americans lacking personal responsibility and welfare dependency.

D. The Public Face of Welfare

      Charles Murray's Losing Ground showed that he was an expert on the culture of poverty belief. Murray argued that the increased number of single, female head-of-households was the primary cause of poverty, especially among African American women. Murray identified the higher birth rates for single African American women as compared with white women as a major cause of African American poverty. Murray further postulated that existing welfare programs caused dependency and created incentives for anti-social behavior and out-of-wedlock births. The depiction of single, poor African American mothers as the root of the society's ills gave the perception that they were unable to conform to white middle class standards because of their deviant behavior. The groundwork was laid for a welfare reform agenda.

      Conservatives crafted their version of welfare reform, which included the key components: (1) reduction in welfare expenditures; (2) decrease in government bureaucracies; and (3) allowance for privatization. Conservatives lobbied Congress to grant states more autonomy to redesign welfare programs with moral and religious underpinnings. States enacted workfare programs to make program recipients work for their benefits. Other reforms would allow for religious organizations to participate in the delivery of social services. The lynchpin, however, was transforming welfare to reflect normative family structure and values. Families that reflected normative values were upheld as exemplary, and those that deviated, such as single parent households, were blamed for poverty. Traditional family values became the foundation for welfare reform. Family-oriented reforms included promotion of marriage and fathers' rights; aggressive child support enforcement; and a family cap to benefits. Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996. The passage of PRWORA can be linked to images of undeserving poor African American women living unrepentant and degenerate lifestyles at the expense of hardworking U.S. taxpayers.

E. Welfare Queens and Racial Stigma

      Race can be used to distinguish groups of individuals without harm or consequence, but imposing attitudes and behaviors in terms of race is often problematic. Economist Glen Loury defines race as:

       [A] cluster of inheritable bodily markings carried by largely endogamous group of individuals, markings that can be observed by others with ease, that can be changed or misrepresented only with great difficulty and have come to be invested in a particular society at a given historical moment with social meaning.

      Loury not only embraces the social construction of race, he highlights how human behavior is organized around race categorization. Influential observers--police officer, bankers, and realtors--hold schemes of race classification in their minds and act based on those classifications. Thus, the problem of racial stereotyping is negative racial classifications. These negative racial classifications have implications beyond the attitudes held by their believers. Negative stereotypes have a direct impact on the affected person. Loury suggests that while overt discrimination has diminished for African Americans, racial injustice in the United States persists. Present day discrimination that affects social, economic, and political life, though less transparent, is harder to root out. Racial classifications and stereotypes are the first step towards discriminatory actions.

      Historically, there are myriad racial stereotypes that continue to harm African American women's psyches. Beginning with the historical caricatures of Mammy, Aunt Jemima, and Jezebel, African American women have been subjected to these negative stereotypes throughout U.S. history. Modern caricatures of the Sapphire, the matriarch, and the welfare queen serve the same purpose of attempting to represent the lives of African American women as problematic and/or inconsequential. Linda Ammons argues that the stereotypical images of African American women are so powerful that they connote violence, disdain, fear, or invisibility, suggesting that “black women are ever cognizant of the possibility of humiliation just because of who they are.” Stereotypes negatively influence how stakeholders in the legal system treat impoverished African American women when they seek access to justice.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

  patreonblack01