There’s a Reason We Can’t Have Nice Things
By Bryce Covert
"Ms. Covert is a journalist who focuses on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families.
The United States is one of six countries in the world without a national guarantee of paid parental leave. Twenty-three other countries have universal child or family allowances. We spend just 0.2 percent of our gross domestic product on child care for our youngest children, compared with an average of 0.7 percent among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In other words, paid leave, child care systems and child allowances are so common as to be banal in much of the rest of the developed world. But the United States has none of these things. That was supposed to change when House Democrats passed the Build Back Better reconciliation package, which originally included 12 weeks of paid family leave, heavily subsidized child care and universal pre-K, and a continuation of expanded child tax credit payments that went out in 2021 and acted as a kind of child allowance.
But negotiations over that ever-diminishing package came to a halt late last year when Senator Joe Manchin walked away. (Now there’s a phrase we’ve heard repeatedly during President Biden’s first two years in office.) Democrats have since scrambled to piece together a narrower deal that eschewed all of these things, but after Mr. Manchin recently balked at raising taxes on wealthy Americans, hopes for even that smaller deal have dimmed, if not gone totally dark. It’s not just Mr. Manchin who stands in the way. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has opposed raising taxes on the rich, while some House moderates have also started to question raising taxes before the midterms.
Why is it so much harder — right now, seemingly impossible — for our country to enact new programs that are customary in much of the rest of the world? It’s easy to blame one or two senators, but the problem runs much deeper. More or less, it comes down to our long history of racism and how it’s wormed its way into every debate over government benefits.
In a seminal 2001 paper, the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote tried to answer this very question: Why doesn’t this country have a welfare system that looks like the ones in European countries, progressively taxing those with the most wealth to redistribute resources to those with the least? Economic differences, they concluded, don’t explain it. But they did find that “racial fragmentation” has played a “major role” in keeping us from these policies in a way it hasn’t elsewhere. They also find that while Europeans see the poor as members of their own group who are merely unfortunate, Americans see them as lazy “others.” American voters are less likely to demand that their leaders pass policies that help the least well off. “Racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately Black, unappealing to many voters,” they conclude.
The United States is not the only country that has racists and racism, of course. But our history is deeply intertwined with race, tracing back to slavery and its rolein building the country. It was “often more grotesque” and more “salient” here than in other countries that had slavery, noted Zach Parolin, a senior fellow at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Other countries certainly have their divisions, but “in the U.S. it appears that the most salient dividing line is race,” Dr. Alesina, Dr. Glaeser and Dr. Sacerdote write.
Race has played an outsized role in nearly every debate over the American social safety net. Cutting out agricultural and domestic workers, who were majority Black, made it easier to win the support of Southern Democrats for Social Security legislation. Racism has long stood in the way of universal health care. Before welfare was reformed in the 1990s, Dr. Alesina, Dr. Glaeser and Dr. Sacerdote found, states with higher shares of Black people offered less generous benefits. Then President Ronald Reagan used the “welfare queen” trope to gin up racial resentment against people on cash assistance, and President Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform bill into law that was deeply shaped by Mr. Reagan’s politics and gave states broad authority over their programs.
Dr. Parolin has found that ever since, states with larger proportions of Black residents allocate fewer of the resources to direct cash assistance. Hana Brown, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, has found that state lawmakers are more likely to push through restrictive welfare policies when racial tension is high, in order to appease white voters. States with higher Black populations also have the strictest rules for unemployment insurance.
The United States has a far higher child poverty rate than most peer countries: Out of 40 countries, we rank at number 38. The main difference is that most other countries spend far more on children, often through a child allowance, but the United States didn’t have one until expanded child tax credit payments were sent out to most parents in the second half of last year. And the reason we don’t, Dr. Parolin said, is “inseparable from the racialized perceptions of who receives social assistance benefits in the U.S.” Americans believe programs like public housing, food stamps and welfare primarily serve Black people, even though whites make up the largest or an equal percentage of recipients.
It might seem almost obvious at this point that the United States doesn’t offer the social benefits that Nordic countries do. But even comparing us to more similar countries shows how out of touch and out of step we are. Take one case study in particular: how the United States and the United Kingdom have approached child care. Both countries were on the verge of passing universal child care and early education in the 1970s, and yet both turned around and rejected the policy. In the 1980s, President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could have been cut from the same cloth, pushing an anti-welfare ideology.
And yet in the 1990s the two countries “go in completely different directions,” said Anna Danziger Halperin, a postdoctoral fellow at the New-York Historical Society who wrote a dissertation on the two countries’ approaches to child care policy. In the United States child care spending has continued to be dedicated mostly to poor parents. But Britain embarked on universal child care in 1996, at first with vouchers for families of 4-year-olds and then with guaranteed preschool spots for all 3- and 4-year-olds. The country’s spending on early education and child care quadrupled between 1997 and 2008.
Race, again, played a huge role in the diverging paths the two countries took. After the 1960s, the U.S. federal government mostly invested in child care for poor mothers through cash assistance and Head Start. It ended up “being tied so closely to welfare,” Dr. Danziger Halperin said. In Britain, however, “the imagined person is a white British family,” she said. “Both programs would have been for broad populations, but the way that people think of who this is about is different.”
The other reason for the divergence, she found, was how child care was defined and whom it was intended to serve. In the 1960s, lawmakers in both countries argued in favor of universal child care as an educational program benefiting children. But after President Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan universal child care bill by saying it would “commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family‐centered approach,” in the United States, “conservatives paint it as a feminist boogeyman,” Dr. Danziger Halperin said. That’s when it became “untouchable.” Even today, we arbitrarily divide child care from school. But there was no similar extensive right-wing backlash in Britain. “You just don’t get that kind of thinking,” she said. Instead, in Britain child care is talked about as something that benefits children.
There is also more of an acceptance in Britain, despite Thatcherism and what followed in its wake, “that the state does have a role to play,” Dr. Danziger Halperin said. Britain, after all, has universal health care. “There is more of a state responsibility for the family and for children’s well-being than we have here.”
That’s not how we think about government in the United States. A thick streak of individualism has been embedded in the bedrock of the country’s values since its founding. Americans have been told to “turn first to our families, our own efforts in the labor market,” said Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia, “and turn to government only as a last resort.” We’ve relied on the private market, through employers, to deliver things like health care and paid time off, rather than the government.
Our political structures are also to blame. There have been times in the past when more webbing was added to the social safety net. But Congress “didn’t have the filibuster in the way we have the filibuster in either the Great Society or the New Deal,” said Mike Konczal, a director at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of “Freedom From the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself From the Grip of the Invisible Hand.” Its use to block legislation has grown in recent decades; about half of all uses of the filibuster have happened in just the last 12 years. Despite currently holding a majority in both the House and the Senate, Democrats had to pile all of their priorities into an unwieldy package and try to pass it through budget reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster, which is “a very time-sensitive and brittle process that is very good for cutting taxes and slashing programs,” Mr. Konczal said, “but actually very hard to do on the side of building a better society.”
On top of that, our nonproportional two-party system means we haven’t developed a labor or social democratic party that stands almost exclusively for increasing the role of government in helping people get by. “In the United States, both parties have been relatively market-oriented,” Dr. Waldfogel said. Our courts have also generally been hostile to redistributive policies and more inclined to protect personal property.
In the end, though, experts agree that race is the most defining factor. “Racial prejudice is a real and enduring feature of the American landscape,” Dr. Alesina, Dr. Glaeser and Dr. Sacerdote write. We’ve yet to shake that legacy, and it seeps into everything. “Racism has undermined efforts to deliver a social safety net in the U.S. for a very long time,” Dr. Brown said. It’s a hurdle we still haven’t been able to clear."
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