Study: Race a Factor in Charity, Social Programs

May 9, 2011 | News Wire

By Dwight Ott, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –

No one was home in the small, fenced encampment hidden in the trees on the south side of the approach to the Ben Franklin Bridge leading to Philadelphia.

The inhabitants may have been away because of the chill and the unceasing downpour last Wednesday that cut rivulets of rainwater in the mud and grass. Or they might have went looking for food to bring back to their three tent-like hovels, which where patched together with clear plastic, mosquito mesh, blue and yellow blankets, rags and towels.

But, whatever the reason for the absence, it was clear that the people living there were literally on “the other side of the fence” — or, as one author called, in “The Other America.”

According to three, Ivy League-affiliated researchers, such ragged encampments are likely the result of America being stingier than Europe in providing for its most down and out citizens.

And, the reason for this stinginess: Race!

“I think people who are willing to cut Medicaid and Medicare are driven by heterogeneity,” said Albert Alesina, one of the researchers, with “heterogeneity” here clearly meaning racial differences.

Indeed, based on their 2001 study — which they say is still applicable today — the three researchers concluded that race is a major factor in the generosity or lack of generosity built into American social assistance programs. With unabashed bluntness, the study — completed by Harvard economics professors Alesina and Edward Gleaser, and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth — stated: “Race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”

The study goes on to conclude that, “A natural generalization of race-based theory is that Americans think of the poor as members of some different group other than themselves, whereas Europeans think of the poor as members of their own group.”

In other words, people who dislike transferring money to people of a different color seem to be a major determinant in why there is a “redistribution gap” between the United States and Europe.

But, while the professors assert that race is the most “salient” predictor of support for welfare, they are unable to fully identify why this is the case.

The professors state: “We do not really know why interpersonal altruism seems linked to race. It is possible that human beings are hard-wired to dislike people with different skin color. A more reasonable theory is that human beings are genetically programmed to form in-group, out-group associations and to prefer members of what they perceive as their own group.”

In their study, “Why doesn’t the U.S. Have a European Style Welfare State?,” the researchers indicate that White Americans have no problem giving to programs that are seen as supportive of Whites, but some oppose programs which seem to support Blacks.

“People have a negative, hostile reaction when they see welfare recipients of a different race, and a sympathetic reaction when they see welfare recipients of their own race,” the study states.

And, at least two of the researchers contacted last week said they believed their study was as relevant now as it was a decade ago. Indeed, today, as an urgency to cut the deficit ramps up, entitlement programs — which typically help Blacks and other minorities — are on the chopping block.

“We have hit a point where it is obvious we can’t give to everybody,” said Sacerdote, referring to the current hard times that have limited America’s options. “We have reached the point where it’s obvious we can’t give to everybody.”

Sacerdote also said that hard decisions will have to be made. “The question of how to divide the pie is becoming more important,” he stated.

The study also demonstrates why Blacks may be among the hardest hit by the recession and current budget cutting. “Racial discord plays a critical role in determining beliefs about the poor,” the researchers conclude in their document. “Since racial minorities are highly over-represented among the poorest Americans, any income-based redistribution measures will redistribute disproportionately to these minorities.”

However, a recent poll found that 70 percent of tea party members — a group particularly intent on cutting spending in social programs — do not favor cuts in Medicaid and Medicare.

In the recent McClatchy-Marist survey,70 percent of ‘tea party supporters’ were strongly opposed to cutting the healthcare plan for the elderly and indigent, compared to about 80 percent of registered voters.

And yet, phasing out Medicare for those under 55 has been a major proposal by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a high profile Republican legislator.

Republicans seem to have targeted social programs, which heavily benefit Blacks, for the very reason that Blacks make up a high percentage of the impoverished and unemployed. To some Whites, these programs seem to represent a “transfer” or “redistribution” of wealth.

It’s almost as if anti-socialism — many on the right have called Obama and his supporters “socialists” — has become a code word for pro-racism, one professor agreed.

According to the study, while Europeans consider the poor as people like themselves who just may be having hard luck. “Americans are more likely to associate poverty with laziness and to consider the poor unworthy.”

Because of the resultant neglect, the poor in the United States are likely to be “poorer” than those in Europe, the study claims.

“It would appear that, because of a smaller emphasis on policies that redistribute toward the poor, the bottom decile [10 percent] of the income ladder in the United States is less well off than the bottom decile in European countries. That is, the U.S. poor are really poor.”

The study also said America has a smaller government than some and yet larger government tends to reduce inequalities.

Even among U.S. states there is a race-based disparity. Especially in the South, welfare benefits are smaller in areas with large, non-majority Black populations.

And though opportunities seem to be about the same in the U.S. and Europe, Americans seem — by a nearly 30 percent polling margin — to believe that the poor have more of a chance of escaping poverty in the U.S. than they may actually have.

“Americans are inherently more hostile to government, and more prone to believe that governments are wasteful and likely to spend on projects that the voters oppose. Indeed, the United States was created from an ant-igovernment revolution, and its history includes a civil war in which roughly half the country fought against the federal government,” states the study.

Here, the authors seem to redeem a smidgen of the image of America’s generosity by pointing out that, while European social welfare is more generous, Americans give more to charities than Europeans. But, the study does not make it clear if that charity cuts across racial lines.

What was obvious, though, was that the inhabitants of that little Camden encampment near the Ben Franklin Bridge probably are having a harder time here than if they were in Europe.

Because whatever their ethnicity or nationality, the ultimate reason for their economic disparity, like so much else in this country, likely does have more to do with skin color than pure economics or objective prioritization.

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