Can We Still Afford the Slavery Tax?

August 11, 2011

Multiple Pages
Can We Still Afford the Slavery Tax?

Let’s take it as a given that we’re heading into an age of austerity.

This may not be the case. There is no certainty in human affairs. The secret of tabletop fusion power may be discovered next week; the geneticists may come up with something that abolishes both disease and old age, thereby annihilating both our Social Security and Medicare requirements at one stroke; the solar system may, as in the Poul Anderson novel, pass into a region of galactic space that quintuples all our IQs. All sorts of things might happen. Nobody foresaw the Internet…etc., etc.

Absent any such deus ex machina, however, we are heading into tightwad territory, at least so far as public finances are concerned. Where will the pennies get pinched?

I think most of us have a good outline picture. The age for Social Security eligibility will rise; Medicare deductibles will soar; aircraft carriers will be mothballed; postal deliveries will be twice weekly, then weekly. Under an austerity regime, all these and many other changes will happen.

And then, what about welfare?

“The Slavery Tax was imposed in the robust USA of the 1960s and 1970s, when our country was a mighty engine of prosperity and our governments were swilling in cash.”

Welfare is intended to help poor people support themselves and their families. Some kind of welfare relief has been with us since at least the Poor Law of Elizabethan England. You will get an argument about it all from the sterner kind of libertarian or the occasional strict-Malthusian reactionary, but most of us think public provision at some level is unavoidable.

As soon as you start to look at the numbers, though, you come up against the race issue. Here are the 2007-08 TANF tables—that’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program—broken up by state and race. So for example, in the state of Maryland, which is 30 percent black, 80 percent of TANF-receiving families are black.

It’s the same with food stamps, which nowadays come under SNAP—that’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The New York Times published a neat interactive graphic on SNAP usage a couple of years ago. The accompanying article tells us:

Nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid—28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites….Half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure was 90 percent.

There’s a lot of variation hiding in the overall numbers, as the Times was at pains to remind us. Owsley County, Kentucky’s population is 99.22 percent white: Half are on food stamps. Still, it’s plain that nationwide we’re looking at some big racial gaps.

Those gaps may be getting bigger. The Pew Research Center caused a stir the other day by releasing a report on the white/Hispanic/black wealth gaps. They are more dramatic than is commonly realized, and they’re apparently widening.

Leaving Hispanics out of it—I only have one pair of hands—I’m wondering how these white-black gaps and their consequences will carry forward into an age of austerity.

The gaps seem to be awfully intractable. You need to be over fifty to remember Jim Crow; you need to be somewhat older than that to remember a grandparent who was born in slavery. Yet still the needles on a lot of these dials have barely moved.

After the ructions of the 1960s the USA erected a vast system of support and preferences for black citizens. The height of human felicity in the later 20th century was to be a smart and energetic black American. Colleges, employers, and lenders would beat a path to your door in order to meet their race quotas. When I was researching for a math book a few years ago an academic in that discipline told me that prestige universities’ math departments “fight like cats” over the scant supply of black math Ph.D.s.

For the less stellar there was plenty of government make-work on offer. This has especially been the case at the federal level. In 2007, the latest year for which I can find figures, black Americans were massively overrepresented in the federal workforce—by more than 800 percent in CSOS (Court Services and Offender Services).

Two entire generations of Americans have now grown up among these favors, preferences, and welfare-support discrepancies for black people. They are rationalized among non-blacks, though not without some resentment, as a “Slavery Tax”—as fair recompense for past injustices.

Following the black riots of the 1960s, non-blacks have seen these concessions as an implicit contract or treaty—as non-black America saying to black America: “We’ll give you this stuff if you promise not to break our windows.”

Yet fifty years on, we are still looking at these colossal, apparently intractable, gaps. And the Slavery Tax is expensive—$31 billion in state and federal expenditures in 2008 just for TANF. If black Americans, at 13 percent of the population, consumed TANF funds at the same rate as white Americans, the TANF bill would be less than $14 billion, a savings of $17 billion. A lot of money: not much to show for it.

If you think these numbers are not worth bothering about—mere billions in a sea of trillions—this is just one modest slice of the Slavery Tax I’m talking about. The massive government make-work programs, with all their salaries and benefits, must be far more, though beyond my ability to compute. And if we are talking about pruning the US Postal Service, with 2010 revenues of $67 billion, why not talk about TANF?

Can the Slavery Tax be maintained in an age of austerity? An age in which, moreover, increasing numbers of non-black Americans will feel justified in asking why, after so many decades of favors, concessions, preferences, and support, so many black Americans are still so desperately far behind?

Yet if the Slavery Tax is curtailed or abolished, what will be the consequences? Will it be taken as an abrogation of that implicit treaty, to be responded to with much breaking of glass?

The Slavery Tax was imposed in the robust USA of the 1960s and 1970s, when our country was a mighty engine of prosperity and our governments were swilling in cash. There was some complaining; but heck, we could afford it. We could afford anything!

Now we’re sailing under different skies. Can we still afford the Slavery Tax? If we can’t, how much wider will those gaps get?

And how much glass will be broken? Those riots in London this week:

[British government] cutbacks in the number of police officers have also been blamed for the riots.…In the 12 months to the end of March 2011, the number of officers fell by 4,625 to 139,110.

Right: In times of austerity, police forces take a hit, too.

I grumble a lot about why, in these straitened times, our government doesn’t repatriate the tens of thousands of US soldiers garrisoning Germany, Japan, Korea, etc. When I thus grumbled out loud in the presence of a very cynical friend the other day, my friend remarked: “Perhaps the administration doesn’t want all those armed, trained personnel on US soil.”

He really is very cynical.


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