Over a few days in the last week, I have gotten into an involved discussion over the state of health care in the United States, specifically the problem of a proposed bill that would cut $880 billion from Medicaid, the government program which provides health insurance for the lower income citizens of our nation. These are working class people, the working poor, but also the disabled, the seriously ill, seniors who are below the poverty level, and those in nursing homes. These are the most vulnerable of our population, and one party is determined to stop helping them. And because they are poor, if this lifeline is cut, they will simply have to do without meaningful access to health care. (And no, the ER is not a substitute. Try managing cardiovascular disease or cancer or diabetes using the ER. Or getting a timely diagnosis of a fixable problem.) This is the primary reason why the nonpartisan CBO estimates that about 28 million will lose health coverage as a result of the GOP plan.
In the course of this discussion, a common thread keeps coming up:
These people should pay for themselves. It is immoral to take money from those who deserve have earned it, and give it to those who do not deserve it haven’t earned it.
The working poor are accused of being lazy, of not caring enough to take care of themselves, and so on. No amount of facts will sway these people either. I have pointed out that someone who earns $10 an hour as a single person is in this category - and the same earner with a family of four is actually below the poverty level. No, the poor deserve to go without health care, and the real problem with the world is that we reward the the poor, who don’t deserve anything, with benefits, taking funds away from the wealthy, who have “earned it.”
I may well blog in more depth at some point about how Social Darwinism has become the guiding ethic for the Right - and for far too many American Christians. But for now, I just want to look at a little history.
About four years ago, I ended up researching the connection between the Christian Patriarchy movement and White Supremacy, and I ran across a fascinating and chilling document from the past.
Looking back, I believe this was the turning point in my journey away from the Republican Party and from my former political beliefs in general.
But, you asked for my opinion of this fearful question of the negro in our common schools. It is not necessary for me to repeat the points so strongly put by “Civis.” To one of them only, I would add my voice: the unrighteousness of expending vast sums, wrung by a grinding taxation from our oppressed people, upon a pretended education of freed slaves; when the State can neither pay its debts, nor attend to its own legitimate interests. Law and common honesty both endorse the maxim: “A man must be just before he is generous.” The action of the State, in wasting this money thus, which is due to her creditors, is as inexcusable as it is fantastical. I do know that not a few of our white brethren, before the war, independent and intelligent, are now prevented from educating their own children, because they are compelled to keep them in the cornfield, laboring from year’s end to year’s end, to raise these taxes to give a pretended education to the brats of the black paupers, who are loafing around their plantations, stealing a part of the scanty crops and stock their poor, struggling boys are able to raise. Not seldom has this pitiful sight made my blood boil with indignation, and then made my heart bleed with the thought. (From The Negro and the Common School)
That quote is by Robert Lewis Dabney, a Confederate chaplain, purveyor of viciously racist (and sexist) ideas. The whole article is worth reading, because it pretty clearly lays out the exact same argument made by the Right for why it is supposedly immoral to spend tax dollars on the poor.
After discovering this quote, and realizing that - at least back then - the argument against public sector investment was based on racism and a desire to dehumanize and deprive African Americans of full access to society, I started to look a little closer at the subsequent history.
And guess what? It turns out there is a real history of race as the undercurrent in our discussion about public benefits. (Yeah, I know, I’m late to this realization…)
First, let’s unpack the Dabney quote.
Dabney makes the argument that it is “unrighteous” to tax whites to pay for public schools for blacks. This is such a direct parallel to the argument made today that it is startling. The idea is that wealth “belongs” to those who happen to have it (in many cases because of systems which benefit them at the expense of the poor) and that it is morally wrong to change that. Basically, this is the spirit of “I deserve and earned everything I have, and the fact that you don’t have it is not my problem.”
Second, note that Dabney claims that using funds to benefit blacks deprives whites. This too is the exact same argument, that spending funds on health care (or other benefits) for the poor causes hardship to those who deserve what they have. This is also the false dichotomy at work. It isn’t “either we educate blacks or we educate whites.” As it turned out, whites still got educated after we started funding public schools for blacks. Heck, whites still get educated after Brown v. Board of Education.
Third, Dabney insists that blacks are lazy thieves, and don’t really benefit from the education. Again, this is the exact same argument made today.
And there is more, if you read the entire article. Dabney claims that public education for blacks will cause them to become dependent on government.
Dabney complains that his tax dollars - which are rightfully his, of course - are being taken from him for a project he deplores.
In what sounds appalling today, Dabney dismisses the counterargument that as long as blacks can vote, shouldn’t they be educated with a statement that he doesn’t think blacks should have the vote, so why should he pay to educate them.
And there is more: public education just encourages idleness in blacks. Education encourages him to be uppity, rather than content and hardworking at the manual labor to which he is destined. And the training for manual labor should be started at age five, and if necessary, blacks should be “apprenticed” to white folks. Hmm, at some point, this starts to sound a lot like slavery. Or at least Jim Crow, right?
And Dabney goes on to condemn the idea of education being in the public sector at all. He argues that people should take care of it - pay for it - themselves. Whites can fund their schools, and blacks can fund theirs. And even the low income whites? They should just fend for themselves. Hmm, this too sounds familiar. Let the poor take care of their own health care - they surely can make it happen if they try hard enough. And if they can’t, well too damn bad.
It struck me at the time, and strikes me even more now that this is the exact same argument.
All we have done is change the terms slightly. We now do not expressly say “negroes,” but just use “lazy takers.” The rest is the same.
How about the history of public benefits? The more I read, the more I am struck by the fact that the popularity of any government benefit is directly related to which people it is perceived as benefiting. In the case of public schools, it is clear Dabney deplores them primarily because they benefit blacks. But there are more.
Here is an early example: The Homestead Act.
This is the government program that allowed my immigrant ancestors in the 1880s to rise from poverty to the middle class. We got free land from the government (plundered from Native Americans).
Technically, the Homestead Act was available to non-whites, but whites (including 1st generation immigrants) were overwhelmingly the beneficiaries. Why? Well, you had to start with enough to farm the land - seeds, animals, tools - and build a shelter. How would you get that? Well, you might save a grub stake. Or you might borrow money. Neither of these were readily available to non-whites. This isn’t to say that blacks didn’t homestead. Some did. In fact, there is a historical African American settlement not too far from where I live, preserved as a state park.
But for the most part, this was a program that benefited whites, not blacks. I would say equally important was that it was perceived as benefiting whites, and that is what ensured its popularity.
Another example: Social Security
When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, it did not apply to all workers. It specifically excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers.
Much ink has been shed about why this was, with the official SSA position being that it was “administrative,” that is, that it would be too much work to collect payroll taxes from small farms and from families that employed servants. But I think this is too simplistic. The issue isn’t whether the act was intended to exclude non-whites, but whether the fact that it did in practice tend to benefit whites much more than blacks contributed to its popularity.
In fact, 65 percent of the black workforce (and 66 percent of other, non-white races) were excluded from Social Security. These government benefits largely went to whites for decades, until the law was changed.
Those who discount the racial aspect point out that more whites were excluded (by numbers) than blacks. This too misses the point. If two thirds of white men were excluded, there is no way in hell the act would have passed in that form. If things were reversed, with most non-whites getting benefits, while whites were excluded, there would have been mass hysteria over the bill.
Again, perception is key. When most of us whites think of Social Security, we think of grandma. We don’t think of the ghetto. Social Security is (for good reason) a wildly popular program, which has made old age less of a terror for all of us.
Later on, Medicare and Medicaid were created, and their parallel yet divergent courses also shed light on the way that perception as to who gets benefits determines perception of the program. Both Medicare (which is a single payer, heavily subsidized, guaranteed issue insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (which is similar, but for the poor, disabled, and those in nursing homes) were established in 1965. This was one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This fact is vitally important.
The Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow and Segregation. But Medicare and Medicaid were vital parts of this change too. Neither Medicare nor Medicaid would pay anything to hospitals or other medical providers that segregated, either by excluding non-whites OR by physically segregating patients in the hospital. Money talks, and this desegregated hospitals overnight.
It is easy to forget that prior to this, it was literally impossible for many blacks to obtain health care, even if they could afford it. Doctors and hospitals would not accept them.
Medicare is linked to Social Security, and shares its perception as being the way to take care of grandma. Medicaid, on the other hand, is squarely in the sights of the GOP as a program to be abolished. Perhaps this is because it is perceived as benefiting people of color - those moochers - at the expense of whites.
Let’s look back too at the segregation issue. Along with desegregation, the Medicare/Medicaid system also brought poor people into middle and upper class hospitals. A hospital that took Medicare had to accept Medicaid as well, so the poor - and non-whites - suddenly could afford medical care. There are people I know from my grandparents’ generation who still complain about having the “riff-raff” in the waiting room with them.
Just one more comment on this. It is in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - and the ensuing kerfuffle over Bob Jones University’s insistence on remaining segregated - that the Religious Right was founded - on a pro-segregation platform. At the same time, there was the recognition that naked racism wouldn’t necessarily play as a political cause. The Religious Right made an intentional pivot to abortion as the cause celebre, while embracing a libertarian and Social Darwinist economic vision - same result, but without the racist baggage.
Now, with the triumph of the Paul Ryan sorts, the official economic policy of the GOP is indeed one of Social Darwinism. (This is in contrast to even 9 years ago, with George W. Bush, who still believed that we should try to alleviate suffering.) The teachings of Ayn Rand, of Ludwig von Mises, and of Murray Rothbard are the official doctrine of the Right at this point. A discussion of the specifically Social Darwinist views must await a future post.
But it bears mentioning that all three of the above called for the abolition of civil rights laws. Rand herself said that the Civil Rights Act was worse than Communism (!!). Von Mises abhorred the Civil Rights Act, particularly the part that forbid employers from refusing to hire non-whites. Rothbard too made abolition of the Civil Rights Act central to his economic vision.
I do not believe the embrace of these ideas by the Right is an accident. It allowed people to come to the same policies while still thinking well of themselves.
I believe that at an emotional level, whether it is acknowledged to one’s self or not, we are still fiercely tribal creatures. Our willingness to share with others is directly proportional to how alike we perceive them to be. When we denigrate others as “lazy moochers,” or “unwilling to work hard,” or say they “didn’t earn it,” we aren’t envisioning our own children, our own relatives, our own tribe. We are envisioning “those people,” whoever they happen to be.
With 150 years of US history showing an ongoing problem with racism - really our national sin - it seems unlikely that we would be saying the same things about who does and does not deserve basic needs like health care unless we, deep down, meant the same thing. Even if we have somehow overcome the racial element, we have merely shifted into class hatred, and view all the poor (not just the brown ones) with contempt. Whatever else this is, it is in no possible way a Christian sentiment.
I’ll end with this thought:
For 150 years, we have justified withholding public benefits of various sorts, from education to health care, because of racist views. We have used certain arguments about why we shouldn’t help those outside our tribe.
Now, once again, we are making the exact same arguments, just with a more esoteric explanation - really a utopian philosophy that everyone benefits when we refuse to help the poor. Is it really likely that we rejected our racism, started from scratch, and came to the exact same conclusion, but this time for totally valid reasons? Or is it more likely that we continue to harbor the same tribalist, selfish instincts, and the same belief that non-whites are just a bunch of lazy moochers, unworthy of the basic humanity we grant to ourselves and those like us. We just know that we can’t say that out loud - even to ourselves…
More Dabney racism.
The worst part about all of this is that every single person who made the above argument to me was:
- Middle to upper class
- Considered himself to be a devout Christian
I believe that the reason that American White Evangelicals (and Dabney back in the day) have embraced the Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand, and also embraced the lies about the poor that go along with it, is that they are faced with a lot of cognitive dissonance: the founder of our religion clearly tied our eternal destiny to how we treat “the least of these,” so we have to have some rationalization for why we do not do what Christ commands - and why our politics works toward the opposite goal. Perhaps I will write about that in the future.
Note on comments: Please read my Comment Policy before commenting.
Also, for purposes of this post, I will delete any comments that repeat the same talking points, particularly:
- The poor are lazy
- Taking taxes and redistributing them is “theft.” I already know the Rand/Von Mises/Rothbard position.
- It isn’t the job of the government - it is for private charity. See below. And, if you can show any society since the invention of modern medicine, which has provided healthcare for its poor without government aid and only with private charity, then fine. But I have been able to discover evidence of any such thing.
I doubt anyone can honestly dispute that terminating or cutting funding for health coverage for the poorest citizens will cause them serious hardship. If you believe there is a better way to do it, you need to show the following:
- A concerted effort to create said alternative. Speculation isn’t enough: it must be currently ongoing as an effort.
- Such effort MUST be actively seeking out the poor, the sick, and those with preexisting conditions. If not, then it really isn’t addressing this problem. It may well be good, but it isn’t sufficient.
- Such effort MUST have sufficient funding - or a viable plan to obtain it - to cover a $880 Billion shortfall. Because if it doesn’t, it will not be able to actually cover the poor, the sick, etc.
- Such an effort MUST have a way of keeping the healthy from fleeing and leaving the sick to fend for themselves - otherwise, it will collapse.
- Such an effort MUST cover those outside of the tribe. So one that is just for christians of a particular theology (including no alcohol,tobacco, etc.) or just for people who do not have mental health issues will by its nature exclude many.
- It must be prepared right now to absorb 28 million who will mostly be sick and poor. If it cannot step in immediately to assist those who will be cut off, then it is illusory. If you burn my house down, it is of cold comfort that someday in the future, someone might rebuild it.
So, this rules out existing programs like Medi-Share, which does not fit any of the conditions except the first. If you try to sneak your “alternative” in and it does not satisfy these conditions, I will delete your comment.