It’s become a political cliché that “red” and “blue” states represent two Americas. But consider how states prioritize programs like health care and education — or how they administer their social safety nets — and the differences are very real. Federal policies help smooth out some of those differences — everyone is eligible for the same Medicare and Social Security programs when they get older — but conservatives have long campaigned to broaden the divide by turning over more and more federally administered programs to the states.
We can see how that might play out by looking to the past. In 1996, Congress “reformed” our existing welfare system in much the same way Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to “reform” Medicaid and other anti-poverty programs: they killed off the federal entitlement and turned the money over to the states to implement new models of welfare as they saw fit. It was a central plank in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” 20 years ago and also considered one of Bill Clinton’s signature achievements.
University of Minnesota sociologist Joe Soss spent a decade studying how those reforms shook out in the real world. With Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram, he co-wrote the book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, explaining how race became a determining factor in how states created their own welfare programs — and how that ultimately led to a system that’s rife with racial bias.
Soss: After welfare reform passed, the federal government said [to the states], “Here are a bunch of goals we want to accomplish. We want, first and foremost, for you to put people to work, and we want to discourage childbirth, and we want to promote marriage… You’re now free to figure out how to do these things.”
What happened was pretty remarkable… What you see in this crucial period of recreating the system is that pretty much the only thing we could find that really drove one policy decision after another was the percentage of minority recipients on the welfare rolls at the time.
In other words, people had become so focused on racial issues that race really drove the patterning. They were not necessarily conscious of it; it was race-coded and below the radar for most people. But all of the states with more African-Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules. And when you add those different rules up, what we found was that even though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African-Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.