Published on January 30th, 20130
Republicans, Minorities, and Foodstamps! Oh, my!
Republicans have to broaden their appeal beyond the grumpy old white man demographic, how are we supposed to do it? There may be a simple answer, but like many simple answers it will be difficult to swallow.
We could go a long way toward breaking out of our racial rut if we could only outgrow The Myth of Income Redistribution. This myth has played a vital role in the post-Cold War GOP, attempting with mixed results to unify whites behind a phony sense of racial solidarity. The currently circulating version of the myth can be summarized as follows:“WE are people who work hard for what we have and contribute through our taxes to pay for government. THEY are people who pay for nothing and expect government to give them everything they need. OUR work keeps this country going. THEIR laziness drags this country down. Liberals use the evil of ‘income redistribution’ to take money from US and give it to THEM in order to create dependency and buy votes from the ignorant and the shiftless.”
There are three problems with this delusion. First, its central implication – that there is a distinct group of noble “creators” preyed on by a separate group of parasitic “takers” is a lie. Second, the myth is so pungently hypocritical that it practically burns your eyes. Finally, it takes conservatives out of the discussion on poverty issues, stripping them of their vital role in shaping the form and values of the social safety net.
For starters, few Americans realize how little we spend on food stamps. Even at the height of the great recession the food stamp program was about 2% of the 2011 budget. By comparison, food stamps for struggling families cost markedly less than the $100bn we lay out each year to subsidize home mortgage interest . Incidentally, about two-thirds of the government handout for mortgages goes to the top 20% of wage earners.
Who receives food stamps? African-American households receive a quarter of the benefits and Hispanics receive about 20%. Who gets the rest? Do the math.
A large chunk of the food stamp budget goes to support working households. That’s right, 40% of the “takers” on the food stamp programs are families working hard to make ends meet. And how high are these “moochers” living? In Texas, for example, the average monthly benefit is $125 a month. Have fun feeding your family on that.
So, most food stamp recipients are white and a large minority are “working poor,” but perhaps the myth still holds because the very notion of “income redistribution” is fundamentally wrong, or “socialist,” or unsustainable. That idea runs into some problems.
Income redistribution is one of the principle functions of civilization. It’s what America does and Somalia and Haiti do not do. Americans of all income groups and political parties benefit from income redistribution all the livelong day. If income redistribution makes people “dependent” on government, then humankind has been “dependent” since we gave up hunting mammoths for food.
Never mind the more obvious examples like roads, police, and courts. Without income distribution in the form of government agencies, mortgage market supports, and very generous tax subsidies there would be practically no middle class home ownership in this country. The elderly, other than the extremely wealthy, would not be able to afford modern medical care in almost any form. Almost none of the medicines you use would have been invented. Without income redistribution very few of us would be capable of reading this.
Income redistribution is the reason those highly independent red state conservatives who live on farms far from cities and claim they need nothing from the government have access to electricity, roads, hospitals, schools, doctors, telephones, and the Internet. Not to mention that without direct government subsidies most of what remains of family farming in this country would disappear overnight.
Government takes money in the form of taxes and uses it to produce infrastructure and welfare programs that benefit all of us in incalculable ways. If you want to see the portrait of a “taker” find a mirror.
So should Republicans become the party or more food stamps, more housing credits, and welfare for all? Of course not, but denigrating struggling families who need help is repugnant. Politically, it demolishes conservatives’ credibility in the debate over the priorities and goals of the welfare system.
Our role is to see that government programs are focused on making all Americans more independent, with greater options to use our talents and efforts toward our own personal goals. Isaac Hayes, an African American Republican from Chicago put it best, “You don’t tell a 3rd-generation welfare recipient, ‘Fend for yourself.’ You say, ‘Let me show you how you can break the cycle.’”
Our purpose is to build an optimistic system in which all forms of government activity, from food stamps to small business loans, function more like a trampoline and less like a spider web. Moreover, conservatives understand the ways in which personal moral values can impact economic outcomes. We cannot serve our vital role while bashing the poor or wallowing in fantasies of superiority.
Republicans do not need to fashion some customized message specifically for minorities. Simply replacing a few cherished myths with facts and humility would help us wash away the odor of Old Dixiecrat that hangs over us. If the only reform we embraced was adopting a more adult understanding of entitlements, spending, and the role of government we would be well on our way to serious deficit reduction while opening the party to authentic participation by Americans of all descriptions.
Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)