In my previous blog post, I addressed the fact that over the past several decades the gap in wealth, especially that between whites and people of color, has increased enormously. This has been the prolonged trend despite the passage of novel social welfare programs meant to tackle the issue of urban poverty amongst racial and ethnic minorities. It is interesting to note that this stunt in progress has occurred despite the shift in the type of social welfare policies that began to be implemented during the Civil Rights Era. During this time period, civil rights advocates urged for more laws to be established that protected the rights of specific, underprivileged minority groups rather than the universal rights of all citizens. It is easy to assume that this narrowing of scope would result in an increase in the efficacy of these anti-poverty programs because they were now designed to target racial and ethnic minorities, who made up a significantly large percentage of the poor at the time (and still now). However, these poverty and discrimination alleviation programs did not resolve the issue of the increasing wealth gap given their lack of public support and their inability to provide sufficient outreach to impoverished African Americans.
Welfare programs that were, whether de facto or de jure, racially based tended to become stigmatized by the white, usually wealthier, social classes. African Americans heavily used programs that were intended to enhance the universal rights of all American citizens, such as those entailed in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program. However, this only happened to be the case given the fact that past discrimination made blacks more susceptible to poverty. Since these racial minorities utilized these programs, they were increasingly perceived (by the white public) as intended solely for poor blacks. Consequently, some white taxpayers began to feel more resentful about these programs since they felt their money was only going to the benefit of minorities, rather than people of their same racial background as well. This lack of willingness to share their wealth with those that need it most – even if they come from a different background – led to the phasing out of these social welfare programs.
Moreover, even when these social programs were sufficiently funded, much of the aid for these in-kind service programs were provided to those racial minorities who were of middle-class and even upper-class income. This problem originated from the fact that many of the these programs that were utilized in the second half of the twentieth century, such as affirmative action policies for both professional employment and educational purposes, were focused on establishing equality of opportunity rather than equality of condition. Equality of opportunity is the condition in which all peoples are provided with equal access to the tools that they need to earn and establish social mobility, such as formal education, a sufficient income, etc. Although these types of social welfare programs created a type of “free market” in which African Americans could now strive and compete for the same positions and resources that many whites had, it did not account for the fact that these two parties were yet to be on equal playing fields. Although programs were established to – theoretically – abolish racial discrimination, middle- and upper-class African Americans still had the unearned privilege of having ample financial resources compared to the black underclass. Under these conditions, those individuals who needed the benefits of these welfare programs the most (i.e.: the African American underclass) were deprived of these positions and services by wealthier blacks that seemed “better qualified,” to receive the benefits of affirmative action policies.
Trying to reconcile the biases present in race and socioeconomic class identification creates the quandary that is currently present in the affirmative action debate. One of the primary arguments against race-based affirmative action policies is the idea that, if the people of color that need the most aid from such policies are of low-income, why not make the eligibility requirements for these programs strictly based on income rather than race? On one hand, I think it is important that race is taken into account when establishing certain welfare programs. By recognizing that communities of racial and ethnic minorities have faced multi-generational hardships as a result of institutionalized discrimination, policies such as affirmative action work as reparations for past misdeeds made by the American government. On the other hand, if the goal of some of these policies is to ameliorate poverty, then policymakers must find a way to (1) take into account and help poor whites and (2) ensure that middle- and upper-class African Americans do not take away welfare benefits from low-income African Americans. This can only be done if socioeconomic class is considered more heavily as a factor in these affirmative action policies than is race. This suggested approach is beneficial because it acknowledges that poor whites have racial privilege that translates to some economic benefits that blacks are not granted in addition to recognizing that one can still be white and underprivileged in regards to other aspects of one’s identity – in this case class. Furthermore, including income and level of wealth in these the public policy initiatives will provide more opportunities for poor African Americans to take advantage of these programs while also giving wealthier African Americans, some but not all of the benefits that these social welfare programs can provide.