By Elizabeth Corney, Editor
Recently, I’ve heard complaints from various sources that people today just want free handouts. Many seem upset at the idea that as a society, we might decide to fund things like college education, paid parental leave, healthcare, unemployment benefits, etc. They rightly ascertain that these programs are socialistic and proceed to oppose them out of sheer conviction. Socialism has come to colloquially refer to anything that redistributes money or goods. My initial thought on this is that people don’t know where their success came from. We all like to think that our success mainly stems from our own hard work. Certainly, you can’t get anywhere without some degree of work; however, factors largely outside of our control set us up for access to resources that will help us. Our family’s ability to live in the right neighborhood in order to get us in decent schools, help pay for college and cars, and act as a safety net greatly contribute to the probability of our success. But how does a family come to have the resources to project their children into the most promising setting for success? Along the way, many benefitted from government programs of various sorts. (Spoiler alert: These programs disproportionately benefitted white people because slavery, Jim Crow, and racist immigration laws prevented anyone else from receiving benefits).
Individual families vary in their ability to provide education to their children. Public school systems pool resources in the community in order to provide education of all kids. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read and Jim Crow kept education decidedly unequal for a long time. Since schools still display massive inequality due to funding based on real estate values, this system continues to disproportionately cater to people with higher incomes.
Congress had a great idea to take land from indigenous people and give it to “hardworking” Americans who laid claim to it. They passed the Homestead Act to make this a reality, transferring 160 acres of farmland to any head of household who could make the journey and navigate the system to prove their claim. After the Civil War, some newly freed black people did attempt to stake claims, but the majority of people who benefitted were white and already living further west when the law went into effect.
The New Deal
Two initiatives, Social Security and the Federal Housing Administration, provided major impacts on ordinary people’s lives. Social Security set up an automatic retirement benefit for all workers except farm laborers and domestic servants. These two occupations were largely filled by Latino, Asian, and black workers. Those in the most vulnerable jobs were left with the least help. The Federal Housing Administration helped many Americans buy homes for the first time; however, white applicants were much more likely to be accepted.
These are just snippets of various efforts to maintain the so-called American dream. Many middle class white people can claim that economic status because of programs that redistributed resources to help people attain various steps along the way whether it was the Homestead Act or the New Deal or federal aid for students. Interestingly, it seems like people are all for the programs that helped them or their families in the past, but vehemently oppose expanding programs to help more people in different ways. Our great-grandparents somehow deserved the homestead that they claimed, but the folks who push for public funding of college are somehow lazy and want things for free. In either case, you still have to put in work to get the benefit of the degree or land. People have been duped into thinking that individuals wanting free handouts are the problem. We’ve had various forms of “handouts” for a long time. The problem is, people want to pretend like they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and yet deny others funding for shoes.
Sources for further reading:
Arrington, Todd. “Exodusters.”
California Newsreel, “A Long History of Affirmative Action – For Whites” http://newsreel.org/guides/race/whiteadv.htm
Nebraska Department of Education. “The Reservation System: Native Lands Sold Under the DawesAct.”
Richmond, Emily. “How Ineffective Government Funding Can Hurt Poor Students”, The Atlantic, June 8 2015