In my last column I wrote about how one of the major barriers to developing racial harmony in our city, and for that matter the state and nation as a whole, is tearing down built-up negative assumptions that have accrued over time. One in particular that I think definitely creates a great deal of antagonism is assumptions made over the issue of dependence.
In the South, despite views to the contrary, we are a very dependent people. Yet, when we take a collective look in the mirror, that’s not the image we see. The image we see is that of a proud people, and area of the country broken and saddled by a federalist system that has stymied our growth, forced upon us limitless mandates and orders of change, and forced us to bear burdens that have robbed us of the liberties and freedoms that the founders of this country envisioned for all. If only, we say, as we stare into this flawed mirror, we could go it alone! However, our image of rugged individualism and self-sustaining effort does not match reality.
We are a welfare state. Like most states in the deep South, we collect and send less than we get from that liberty robbing Uncle Sam. As contradictory as it sounds, we eschew images of individuals getting “government handouts,” but as a state we couldn’t make it without them. If not for Uncle Sam, many of our basic services would be severely lacking or non-existent. We’re unwilling to take care of ourselves, and it’s a position we seem to have become quite comfortable with.
On average, there is often a considerable gap between what the state takes in and what it has to pay for. The reason for this perennial shortfall? Low taxes, which is a bedrock of Southern political beliefs. Yet, ironically, there is no lowered expectations for the services most citizens believe the “government” should provide. A serious paradox indeed.
To maintain our political purity and holdfast to our belief in lower taxes, yet at the same time meet our appetite for the services we want government to provide, we here in the Yellowhammer state lean heavily on the federal government, and by extension, high tax states (that we often piously deride).
These states expect more from their people from a monetary contribution standpoint, and as a consequence, funnel more funds to the central government in Washington, D.C. Small government, it seems, is all well and good down South, so long as we have a generous “other” government to lean on. The mantra we seem to be living by as a state is: smaller government, less taxes, greater federal government dependency.
Winston Churchill observed that, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” In Alabama, leaders have continually stumbled upon and over this truth about our dependency, and scurried on along while continually telling the state’s citizens the opposite of the truth.
Concomitantly, we are a poor, welfare state that often turns around and misidentifies the poor, dependent, individuals within our state. According to the latest census data figures, as well as USDA statistics, the overwhelming majority of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp program) recipients in the state of Alabama are white and rural. Also, many of the recipients from both races who receive such benefits do have jobs.
This information does not at all fit the mental image many would get when they think of individuals who receive government assistance in Alabama. Why is this important? Because perception is so often reality to many, and when the perception is a flawed one it leads to consequences that are harmful to all.
In this instance, the harm comes when individuals or entities within the state espouse more state investment in things such as education, healthcare, family services and the like, there is the tendency among some to immediately have the mental image of those from a certain race – particularly the black race – as being the primary beneficiaries. They see blacks as absorbing a disproportionate share of state funds, via various services, while others in the state have to shoulder the burden of their lack of productivity. Such perceptions creates callousness, antagonism, and hostility. Hardly the ingredients needed to create a more harmonious and collegial community environment.
If we are to move forward as a community, and as a state, we need to first see ourselves for who we are: who makes up our communities, who are the individuals and groups that are struggling, why are they struggling, how are resources accrued, divided and disbursed, who are the contributors, and who are the ones that really take advantage of the system and don’t do their fair share. In Alabama, I think many would really be surprised by the answers to such questions. If more were equipped with the right information, it would most likely be easier to construct a better reality.