Decades of Distortion - Page 3

Highlighting The "Undeserving" Poor

The Republican candidacy of Barry Goldwater for President in 1964 was a turning point for the Old Right.37 During that campaign, many of the themes which later would form the multiple bases for the New Right's attack on welfare were explicit; rightist publications attacked the welfare state for undermining rugged individualism and private property, fostering immorality and non-productive activity,38 contributing to crime (particularly associated with urban riots and the Civil Rights Movement), and ultimately leading to Communism.39

The Old Right drew a classic parallel between conditions in the US and the decline of the Roman Empire,40 drawing especially from the work of neoclassical economists like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom warned of the consequences of collectivism and that Western civilization was abandoning "the foundations laid by Christianity and the Greeks and Romans."41 In its 1959 founding documents, the John Birch Society warned of how the Roman Empire died from the cancer of collectivism.42 Believing that the welfare state destroyed individualism and supported the growth of collectivism,43 Goldwater stated "government policies which create dependent citizens inevitably rob a nation and its people of both moral and physical strength."44

More militant Christian groups further to the right expressed the same equation more bluntly. Destiny magazine stated in a 1961 article that "[o]ne has only to read history to mark the awful price exacted from the nation whose people followed a course that destroyed individual initiative and ambition [the welfare state]." In 1962 The Cross and the Flag saw the welfare state as "taxing away the rewards for responsible behavior."45 The welfare state would leave to socialism and socialism would lead to communism.

Receipt of welfare was also seen as encouraging behavioral problems. The John Birch Society Bulletin stated that governmental welfare programs led to "the subsidization of illegitimacy, laziness, and political corruption."46 Goldwater stated "I don't like to see my taxes paid for children born out of wedlock."47

The racism in the Right's rhetoric of this period was blatant in many subject areas,48 including welfare. Thus laziness and immorality were frequently explicitly tied to an image of AFDC recipients as African American, e.g., the immoral sexual practices of a "growing horde of lazy Negroes" living off the public dole,49 "the unmarried Negro women who make a business of producing children...for the purpose of securing this easy welfare money."50 Goldwater stated that welfare "transforms the individual being into a dependent animal creature,"51 evoking traditional European American caricatures of African Americans.52 Distribution of welfare was designed to buy votes at the taxpayer's expense,53 with the implication that recipients were African American voters.54

Crime was seen as an individual, rather than a social, problem, and was another opportunity to raise the theme of individual responsibility. "The Conservative excuses nobody."55 Therefore the welfare state would not alleviate the "lawlessness" which our nation was experiencing; only a return of respect for authority could accomplish that.56 Goldwater stated "on our streets we see the final, terrible proof of a sickness which not all the social theories of a thousand social experiments has ever begun to touch."57 Indeed by teaching that "the have nots can take from the haves" through taxation, Goldwater portrayed the welfare state as contributing to crimes of property and riots.58


After Goldwater's defeat, the Right consciously focused59 on the "white backlash," particularly in the South,60 as a means of exploiting the racial tensions of the 1960s for political gain.61 Thus, at this critical time when welfare rolls were finally being opened to African Americans, AFDC, along with street crime, non-discriminatory housing, deteriorating neighborhoods, declining property values, school busing, and affirmative action, became banners which could popularize the Right's agenda.62

An example of the evolution of this strategy can be seen by following the coverage of welfare in Human Events, a leading Old Right publication which began in 1944 as a voice of the reactionary wing of the Republican Party. In the early 1960s, articles in Human Events routinely attacked many aspects of the War on Poverty, arguing that it took power away from local governments, brought with it all the associated problems of big government, contributed to business investment decline, and created counter-productive behavior on the part of recipients.63

The Johnson Administration's Great Society programs were accused of leading to "the virtual extinction of local government except as a minor bureaucratic instrumentality of federal power," and would "impose coerced conformity" instead of free enterprise, individuality, and personal freedom.64 Poverty programs would result in consolidated power in the hands of a few men who might abuse the system.65 The programs were portrayed as inefficient,66 primarily creating high salaries for bureaucrats,67 and resulting in political corruption.68

Therefore, federal grants to states for relief should be reduced or eliminated, and those who receive benefits should not be allowed to vote until they paid back the "loan."69 Government had only three legitimate duties: national defense, personal freedom from attack by another, and "certain functions that it is not in the interest of any single individual or small group of individuals to undertake."70

A 1965 Human Events article argued that business expansion within the free market structure is the appropriate method to fight poverty and unemployment.71 The reliance on Keynsian economic theory in development of Great Society programs is misplaced.72 Poverty can be conquered by individual responsibility and thrift: e.g., if the $20 billion spent each year on liquor and tobacco, not to mention gambling, were invested in US industrial development.73

The theme that receipt of benefits creates counter-productive behavior recurs. Programs for high school dropouts encourage teens to leave school.74 The rise in the numbers receiving welfare is attributed to "illegitimate children fathered by men who wander from woman to woman, unworried about who will care for their offspring because they know that Aid to Dependent Children payments will."75 In criticizing New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller's welfare plan for women with children with "no male member of the household," the author comments that "[I]t certainly does seem that most of the aid recipients are skilled enough to know every trick of the trade in getting relief and staying on it."76 People receiving welfare don't want to work.77

However, the tenor of the articles begins to shift in 1966. A connection between poverty programs and the rise of the Civil Rights/Black Nationalism/anti-Vietnam War Movements becomes a theme, playing to the fears of many whites.78 While discussion of waste, corruption, and political patronage still form the basis for some of the discourse,79 urban riots and poverty programs are directly linked. Human Events reports: "Evidence suggests that part of the reason for the riots are militant `anti-poverty' officials and Negro agitators preaching hatred against the whites."80 Grants to "questionable" African Americans are increasingly reported.81 This "army of welfare warriors,"82 has strong ties with labor unions83 and organizes partisan voter registration drives, often in African American neighborhoods.84 While socialism was blamed for much of the world's poverty by "paralyzing human initiatives,"85 articles document the connection between War on Poverty programs and staff and communism.86 In addition, the populist notion of giving a voice to people receiving the benefits is criticized.87

Human Events articles begin to portray poor people in more derogatory terms. A typical example is the story of a Puerto Rican poverty program trainee who failed to keep regular hours and when fired "flounced away, but only after having told Syd's workers they were fools to stay on the job when they could take the first subway to the Bronx and `make as much money from the Program for half the work you're doin' here.'"88 An AFDC mother demonstrating for children's clothing allowances complains that her son is "deprived of even a cotton undershirt to go to school," while smoking a cigarette.89

At the same time, the "marketing of dissemblance" is evident, as Human Events articles begin to undermine the validity of the existence and extent of poverty.90 In critiquing a judicial decision that struck down residency requirements for receipt of welfare, unnamed "experts" are cited to underscore the ludicrousness of the "long-time judicial activist," and "liberal" judges' majority opinion:

Court decrees that welfare residency requirements are "unconstitutional" are not only absurd, say judicial experts who believe there is no constitutional right to welfare whatsoever, but will heavily penalize those states and localities which provide substantial welfare for the poor.91

Thus the Old Right constructed a message based on the confluence of poverty, race, labor unions, violence and communism. In this way, the Old Right was able to promote its agenda of lower taxes and reduced government by beginning to use welfare and the War on Poverty92 to capture the increasing racial fears of much of white America at a time when African Americans were asserting their rights in new ways. This increasing use of welfare as a means of crystallizing and legitimating racism was a particularly successful ploy in breaking open the Democratic white South.93

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