After three debates and seemingly endless months of media coverage, everyone should have some sense of what it would be like to wake up on the morning of November 9 knowing that Donald Trump will be our next president. Many would mentally go through the list of all the issues they care about. Hopefully, the fates of Americans daily struggling to make ends meet would be on it.
The social safety net has been tied to significant drops in poverty since President Johnson declared a War on Poverty over 50 years ago. Success was immediate. Compared to the beginning of the 1960’s, roughly half as many people were poor at the end of the 1970’s. Maybe we could have made similar progress in this modern era if only Trump’s race politics hadn’t intervened? But wait — maybe his brand of blunt race talk is exactly what we need.
Pre-Trump, Conservatives and Progressives were comfortably coasting along with a status quo in which both sides did their best to avoid uncomfortable conversations about race. The former relied on gentle dog whistles. Meanwhile, many mainstream Progressives sought to foster cohesion among a highly diverse coalition by stressing everyone’s similarities and common interests.
This approach is frequently evident in the poverty space. It is quite easy to tell America’s poverty story without discussing race or reducing it to a common footnote ― “all of the above disproportionately impacts blacks and Hispanics.”
This “we’re all in this together” view is definitely valid. Many Americans know or sense that the economy has been changing. Essentially, as the 1960’s and 1970’s were passing into the rear view mirror, economic inequality was growing. All Americans started working longer hours for less pay. The manufacturing sector started to collapse, and along with it, work opportunities and good paying jobs for people with limited education and skills. These changes affect workers of all races.
This race-neutral true story helps with the critically important work of building bridges across racial lines. However it is woefully incomplete. Let’s think about some important developments that are too often left out by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and other progressives who genuinely want to reduce poverty.
For instance, as the nation made strides towards tearing down the legally sanctioned second-class worker status of black Americans, it found new workers of color to exploit. Immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world became the new legally sanctioned second-class workers. Too many are woefully underpaid as denials of full citizenship and access to education seem designed to “keep them in their place.” Trump’s use of the phrase “bad hombres” is a part of an undercurrent of racism that surrounds the national debate around immigration reform. The parallels to Jim Crow-era black workers are glaring and sickening to believers in racial equality.
There’s also the mass incarceration chapter of the story. Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Ava DuVernay (13th — now available on Netflix) have powerfully described the racialized nature of a system that exploits the labor of black and brown people while they’re incarcerated. It further ensures that once they get out, they are less likely to get work and are paid less for their labor. Far too many families in the system experience poverty.
And then there was Newt Gingrich’s (R) “Contract with America.” Its inclusion of welfare reform would mark the last time Congress invested significant effort in comprehensive legislation designed to address poverty. By some accounts, the GOP vision for fixing the War on Poverty failed. Initial dips in poverty coincided with an economic boom and the generally low unemployment rates of the 1990’s. As the good times faded, so did gains in reducing poverty. Today 19.7 percent of children live in poverty, slightly less than the 20.5 percent rate that existed in the year welfare reform passed. What went wrong?
It comes back to race. Welfare reform policies were driven by racial stereotypes about black Americans — President Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” and the “Deadbeat Dad” were prominent. Like the justifications of slavery that preceded them, these sinister caricatures are rooted in the idea that absent the crack of the whip, black men and women would be irresponsible and too lazy to work. Even further, they would go so far as to find conniving and underhanded ways to avoid work.
Welfare reform legislation of the 1990’s mirrors what would be necessary for these two-dimensional racist stereotypes. Its aim was to force the poor to work and be responsible for their children. Meanwhile, legislators failed to address the very real problems of disappearing jobs, declining wages, the need for immigration reform, and out-of-control incarceration rates among other issues. Congress failed to see three-dimensional Americans of varying races and with differing needs and challenges.
Race and racism plays a central role in the dramatically slowed progress of poverty reduction efforts. This raises an important question for progressives: Why not take a page out of the Donald Trump playbook and bluntly discuss race (even those issues that we normally avoid out of a fear of alienating certain audiences)? There are a couple reasons why this is a good idea.
First, quality solutions are often tied to actions that identify and pull out the roots of a problem. This prevents a recurrence. Race is at the very root of American poverty.
Second, conservative narratives and dog whistles never cease. They say that black and brown people are more likely to be poor because these groups are lazy, irresponsible, and constantly trying to game the system. Lesser efforts to promote a counter-narrative on the race-poverty connection allow the views of folks like Trump to dominate the political consciousness.
Third, the progress that occurred during the early years of the War on Poverty did not occur in a vacuum. Advocates and organizers forced the nation to confront its racial baggage. People of color benefited from new public and private sector policies that promoted civil rights and economic inclusion. Examples included affirmative action in jobs and education, minimum wage expansions reaching more diverse workers, and employment discrimination protections. Instead of solely emphasizing War on Poverty legislation, America’s poverty story can be put another way: Significant drops in poverty were associated with that moment in history when the nation got real on race. Indeed, that’s exactly what may be needed today.