Many Christians may acknowledge that poverty is bad in the United States, and that it is racialized—poverty is consistently higher for Black Americans. But, they claim, welfare in the United States actually drove up joblessness, crime, and the breakdown of the family for Black Americans in the second half of the 20th century, after welfare and civil rights legislation. This is used to proclaim that welfare is the real cause of poverty (especially for Black folks) because it disincentivized work and marriage, as evidenced by increasing joblessness and non-marital birth rates. I am going to argue that the link between welfare and joblessness is groundless and blinds us to what actually happened, leading to a distorted and dehumanizing understanding of both racism and poverty in the US.
For unemployment rates to reach the massive rates they did (around 40-50% for the lowest-skilled Black working-age men from 1980-2000, compared to 20-25% among the same demographic from 1940-1960,) there is almost always a problem with the number of jobs available, not simply how many people want to work. So what would decrease the number of jobs available? First, there was a large wave of Black migration from the rural south to the urban north and west—as well as the urban south—in the 1940s and 50s, and the cities from the urban north were never able to provide enough jobs for all of these folks (who were seeking reprieve from the brutality and economic exploitation of the Jim Crow south). Racism drove them to these cities, where they were segregated into neighborhoods of other poor Black folks. Even though there weren’t enough jobs to go around, the manufacturing boom gave enough employment to improve the lot of many fleeing the south, reducing poverty during the '60s.
Then, deindustrialization. The economy began to transition from an industrial and manufacturing economy—where most of the Black folks in these cities worked—to a deindustrialized, service-based economy in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Capital (and the affluent, disproportionately white population, as well as the small Black middle class) moved out of cities and into suburbs, and the employment system Black folks had relied upon and which had already strained under the number of jobseekers finally collapsed. The welfare state policies of the War on Poverty were not useless, but they did not come anywhere close to the scope of the problems caused by these other structural factors.
The knock-on effects of this concentration and subsequent deindustrialization were the rise in crime and decline in marriage that many Christians erroneously pin on welfare state programs. If a huge proportion of working-age men in your community cannot find any work, you can expect that many of them might seek out less legitimate ways of earning money through crime, and this would cyclically break down social networks of care and trust. The loss of tax dollars from the affluent residents of cities who had moved to the suburbs meant that services and infrastructure that were most necessary were crippled. You might expect that women would struggle to find men they were willing to marry if jobs were scarce. It certainly did not help that means-tested benefits would often drop off sharply if you were married, but this is not an inevitable feature of the welfare state. It’s the result of a badly designed policy. Universal benefits—say, a child allowance—that do not change if you get married would not have this disincentive effect.
Pointing to the moment when the War on Poverty programs started and then pointing at the rise of unemployment and crime in the latter half of the 20th century is exactly the problem with correlation not being the same as causation. Economist Thomas Sowell is one of the most broadly-known purveyors of this story. The problem is that the story basically ignores any structural factor other than welfare—and quite a number of things happened in the lead-up to the dramatic rise of unemployment and crime Sowell links with the welfare state. Popular videos of Sowell on the internet again and again show the problem of correlation: he spends no time establishing that the welfare state was the primary cause, he simply asserts it to be so.
International comparisons also cast doubt on this story. If welfare disincentivizes work, you would expect that countries that spend a lot on welfare also have lower rates of work. But this is not at all what we find: employment rates and workforce participation rates are consistently high in countries like the Nordics where welfare spending is also much higher than in the US.
Christians cannot afford to be deceived when the stakes are so high. We’ve gotten it wrong and blamed poor and Black people for social problems that would not exist without massive structural factors working against them. If we want to know how to help the least of these, we must first know why things are the way they are. In the case of this phenomenon, racism and deindustrialization—not the growth of America’s modest welfare state—were the driving forces. The solutions to these problems are the active creation of a more equal and just social and economic order that honors the image of God in everyone.