A Race Against Time: The South and the Fight Against Social Welfare

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accpeted this program on condition that African Americans be excluded from its benefits.

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accepted this program on condition that African-Americans be excluded from its benefits.

This October, some of the major benefits of President Obama’s signature health care reform bill will start being implemented across the U.S. Of course, ever since the bill’s passage back in 2010, the Republican Party has stood in strident opposition to a supposedly Stanliesque health reform law that was inspired by… the Heritage Foundation: a Republican think tank that over a decade ago proposed the idea of mandated individual health insurance. Among the GOP’s most vociferous opponents of Obamacare has been Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who is aiming for the title of senate Wingnut Royale. Cruz has made headlines of late by defiantly claiming that he’ll find a way to destroy Obamacare even in the face of procedural impossibilities in the Senate.

Cruz’s Quixotic quest to defund the health care law is, in large part, a rhetorical attempt to regurgitate just enough political innards into the gaping maws of his nested Tea Party backers in exchange for their continued support. But Cruz’s anti-Obamacare stance is also standard politics for a conservative politician from the South: Cruz, as did many southerners in the past, opposes social welfare programs. Historically, however, conservative southerners’ opposition to welfare has been far from total; rather, as scholars like Lisa Disch and many others have observed, it has been selective along lines of class and, especially, race.

Earlier this summer Salon published an excerpt from Sasha Abramsky’s new book, The American Way of Life: How the Other Half Still Lives, that details the South’s historical opposition to the safety net. Abramsky notes that the U.S. as a whole, but particularly the South, stood against social welfare in the nineteenth century, even as European nations worked to implement early safety nets:

In the United States…support for such reforms remained more tenuous. True, an array of progressive political groups supported workers’ compensation laws by the early twentieth century. And by 1917, with the Supreme Court having upheld the constitutionality of these laws, thirty-seven states had systems in place, most of them compulsory. In fact, as a region, only the Deep South had completely neglected to implement compensation schemes for at least some categories of injured workers.

Some minor state-level tinkering aside, Abramsky observes that it took the Great Depression to loosen the U.S.’s opposition to the safety net and embrace FDR’s New Deal, especially in the South. Opponents of mandated social programs:

[A]rgued that the imposition of mandates on working Americans, forcing them to pay into a system to support the elderly and to provide medical coverage for the sick, was foreign to the country’s founding principles. What was happening in Europe was, they argued, too paternalistic, too coercive. Moreover, in a land of great social mobility and endless opportunity such systems were unnecessary. Keep them for the ossified Old World—keep them for places where one’s station in life was determined by one’s parentage.

This excerpt, however, neglects the important role race played in shaping Southern — and American — opposition to social welfare. After all, the U.S. did, in fact, implement welfare policies before the New Deal. As historian Elna Green writes, the Civil War produced the first great shift towards social welfare in the form of veterans’ pensions that covered soldiers and their immediate families and dependants. By 1893, 40 percent of the Federal budget was reserved for Union veterans’ pensions. Former Confederate soldiers were exempt from Federal soldiers’ pensions, but white conservative southern politicians who “redeemed” the South after Reconstruction implemented state pension programs similar to those at the Federal level.*

The Confederate pensions started small, but grew thanks to the influence of the Lost Cause movement, which Green defines as “an emotional defense of the [Confederate] war effort, slavery, the Confederacy, and the superiority of southern civilization.”* Rebel pensions set a precedent for defining social welfare as for whites only, laying the groundwork for the notion that the safety net was okay for some — but not all — that still influences modern southern conservatives.

Florida, for example, funded its 1909 Confederate Pension Law via property taxes that drew from white and black landowners, even though African-Americans did not serve as Rebel soldiers and were therefore ineligible for veterans’ benefits. By taxing blacks to pay for white pensions, Florida justified the existence of social welfare on grounds that it benefited whites at blacks’ expense. By enacting welfare in the form of Confederate veterans’ benefits, the state hedged against any potential black agitation for welfare benefits.* As Green notes, defining social welfare in racial terms “allowed Southern states to create extensive and expansive social welfare programs, without appearing to do so.”* Pensions for poor whites were earned through service, but welfare for blacks constituted racial entitlements.

Conservative southerners continued this line of thought in their approach to Social Security in the 1930s. Southern Democrats chaffed at the idea of redistributing money from whites to supposedly indolent blacks, and worried that extending federal Social Security benefits to blacks would discourage them from working as peons in the South’s fields, factories, and domiciles. In order to gain the support of powerful Southern Democrats for the program, Franklin D. Roosevelt ensured that Social Security excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants, over 60 percent of whom were, not coincidently, black. Thus, conservative southerners embraced Social Security as long as it benefited whites only. As with Confederate pensions, the issue of race influenced conservatives’ support for social welfare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): arch-foe of Obamacare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): (Deluded?) arch-foe of Obamacare.

Today’s southern conservative politicians, such as Ted Cruz, are not unabashed racists like their political forerunners. But modern Republicans’ opposition to the welfare state is still deeply influenced by the racial issues that have long been at the heart of conservative approaches to the safety net. Indeed, much of Cruz’s opposition to Obamacare stems from his hawkish stance on immigration. He’s claimed, for example, that a quirk in the law exempts non-citizens from coverage and therefore encourage businesses to hire newly amnestied illegals over U.S. citizens. This assertion has been disputed, but Cruz’s claim is symbolically significant because it echoes historical southern conservative warnings that social welfare benefits should be endorsed with caution, lest those benefits flow to undeserving, non-white “others.”

Now, I don’t think Cruz is a racist: he is, after all, the son of a (nutty) Cuban refugee. But with his stance against Obamacare, he’s playing to the larger conservative electorate’s conditional opposition to social welfare, which is based on the fear that welfare’s benefits might go to undeserving blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. Consider, for example, the return of Ronald Reagan’s fictional “Welfare Queen” story during the 2012 presidential election. This old myth served as a rallying point for conservatives fighting against Barack Obama’s liberal welfare state supposedly doling out benefits to non-white “takers.” The “Welfare Queen” meme still exists despite the fact that food stamp usage is REALLY high in Red States, especially among conservative whites, and that conservative Red States generally take in more in federal dollars than they pay into the system.

Cruz’s and the Republican Tea Party’s opposition to the safety net, whether in the form of Obamacare or Food Stamps, draws on a historical legacy of southern conservatism’s opposition to social welfare’s benefits going to the “wrong” people. The fight over the American welfare state has never been waged along simple lines of “for” and “opposed.” So the next time you hear shouts about “limited government,” remember to ask: “limited government for whom?”

* Elna C. Green, “Protecting Confederate Soldiers and Mothers: Pensions, Gender, and the Welfare State in the U.S. South, a Case-Study from Florida,” Journal of Social History 39 (Summer, 2006): 1079, 1085-6, 1082.

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