During the last several decades leading into the twenty-first century, a hodgepodge of policies were enacted in order to bridge the wealth gap between whites and racial minorities, specifically African Americans. Innovative programs of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society, for example, were meant to equalize economic opportunities across all races in order to ameliorate poverty. Nevertheless, American society witnessed during this time an incongruous increase in the stratification of wealth and income and a deepening concentration of poverty and racial disparities. The primary contributing cause for this stunt in economic and social progress was the presence of conservative and disinterested political groups that hindered the efficacy of these public policy initiatives by either by limiting the outreach of new social programs to needy racial minorities or by enervating these programs of the power needed to enforce anti-discrimination and anti-poverty practices.
To provide some background, during the later half of the twentieth century, urban centers were experiencing a bout of economic growth. Unfortunately, given certain conditions, racial and ethnic minorities were obstructed from taking advantage of the surge in new jobs created during this time period, thus leading to an increase in racial economic disparity. The urban job growth trend of the 1970’s and 1980’s occurred concurrently with a shift of the economy from a goods-producing industry to a service- producing industry. The increased focus on providing services to consumers lead to a subsequent straitening of job prerequisites, such that individuals had to have more education experience to be employed. This hurt the African Americans and Latinos that made up the wave of migrants who flooded into urban areas at this time, many of whom were young and had less professional experience. This increase in potential employees that lacked the skills to fill in these numerous opening positions lead to the creation of a labor surplus environment. During Nixon’s presidency, his Great Society entailed the implementation of welfare programs that was intended to ameliorate this labor surplus environment for all races.
Unfortunately, given the obstinate Republican Congress during Nixon’s presidency, many of the programs that were enacted in the Great Society plan were amended by Republicans such that the programs lost their efficacy and did not aid African Americans. These amendments were the results of compromises Nixon made with Dixiecrats (i.e.: conservative, Southern Republicans) who wanted to preserve Jim Crow conditions in the South. For example, new organizations such as the Federal Housing Administration were allowed to use racial restrictive covenants or practice redlining for quite some time in order to insure that recipients of housing welfare were racially segregated. The absence of racial integration in public housing complexes only exacerbated the conditions perpetuated by poverty because the social buffer that whites presented remained lacking. Moreover, cases in which racial discrimination occurred in housing were hard to report given the confinements that were placed on the Federal Housing Administration. For example, plaintiffs only had 25 days after signing their housing contract to file a case for racial discrimination. Even then, these cases could only be filed individually and the plaintiff – if found to be a victim of housing discrimination – could not make the defendant responsible for paying the fees for his lawyer. This made discrimination lawsuits both harder – and more expensive – to file and made them less impactful, since they were now individualized and could not be fought on a societal scale.
Blacks were also hurt in welfare programs in the New Deal and Great Society that sough to increase employment rates. In drafting law such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the Wagner Act, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act, lawmakers did not account for the historical, social, and geographical factors that could potentially disallow African Americans benefiting from these programs. For example, the NIRA was meant to restrict production in such a way that both the wages and prices of goods would increase. Although this act was meant to increase the economic prosperity industrial laborers, it ended up hurting many African Americans. The NIRA also included a clause that regulated minimum wage. The minimum wage increased so much that employers were dissuaded from hiring unskilled workers – many of which were racial and ethnic minorities – since their labor was no longer worth this new minimum wage. As a result, 500,000 blacks lost their jobs. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was meant to aid farmers by lessening their workload so as to minimize their production and consequently maximizing their profit. However, by forcing farmers – most of who were white – to produce fewer crops, there was less work for poor, black sharecroppers. The AAA hurt black sharecroppers even more because they now had less money to spend on crops that were now increasing in price. Lastly, in creating programs that strengthened workers’ rights, the federal government made it easier for unions to be racist. The Wagner Act of 1935 did just this by legalizing labor union monopolies. After the passage of this legislation, unions such as the American Federation of Labor were able to create a cohort of skilled laborers that excluded the majority of African Americans workers, most of who were unskilled. This decreased the amount of representation that African Americans received in various industries and led to a disparity in working conditions in industries were the majority of employees were African American.
As a result of the unemployment of African Americans in a labor surplus environment and the inability of new welfare programs to aid them in areas such as employment or housing, African Americans became stuck in a spiral of poverty. Neoconservatives view poverty as the result of innate cultural denigration that is inherent of the African American community, which is one of the reasons why wealthier blacks and whites moved away from these communities. However, in reality poverty resulted from the inability of blacks to actively participate in the nation’s workforce. Ideally, what needed to occur to avoid these problems was for the Dixiecrats not to have deprived these welfare programs of their administrative power and for some of these policies to have specifically targeted racial and ethnic minorities such as African Americans. This shift from universal welfare programs and public policies to narrower, identity group- specific policies will be discussed more thoroughly in my next blog post.