Make America Great Again for the People It Was Great for Already

DONALD J. TRUMP has promised to Make America Great Again, and people have listened. He is the presumptive Republican nominee. He got there with that one consistent campaign imperative splashed across his website, on loud red baseball caps, on stickers, yard signs and other slogan-ready paraphernalia.

This is the one true, unwavering message Mr. Trump offers his supporters. He may avoid direct answers on his taxes, but he has never backtracked on the need to return the country to its previous glory.

Which America is he promising to us? If you ask his supporters, they say life has gotten worse for people like them over the last 50 years. It seems safe to assume that, in the eyes of Mr. Trump’s overwhelmingly white male fans, America was greater a half-century ago. Indeed, it was pretty great — for them.

It’s not just that factory jobs were more plentiful or that women and minorities were largely kept from positions of power. Large national programs that radically changed the country kept America great specifically for white men. New Deal-era systems like Social Security and unemployment insurance; rules that demarcated minimum wages and maximum work hours and protected unionization; and the G.I. Bill at the end of World War II substantially transformed the country and created a booming middle class. But they all purposefully left out most women and minorities.

Social Security’s main program, which has become known by the name of the original bill, was old-age insurance. It was meant to ensure that old age wasn’t synonymous with poverty. The Social Security Act of 1935, which created this and other key programs, was groundbreaking: It is the most comprehensive and influential social program the country has ever enacted.

But it was implemented with enormous loopholes. To gain the votes of Southern Democrats who wanted to protect the Jim Crow structures of the South, agricultural and domestic workers were cut out. Given that more than 60 percent of the black labor force in the 1930s could be found in these jobs — including nearly 85 percent of black women — about two-thirds of all black people were denied, as Ira Katznelson writes in his book “When Affirmative Action Was White.” Those exclusions stood until the mid-1950s.

The political scientist Suzanne Mettler has shown in her work “Dividing Citizens” that women, who made up more than 90 percent of domestic workers at the time, were also cut out by the exclusion of “casual” or temporary workers. And these were the very workers who were making such low wages that saving for retirement was virtually impossible.

Unemployment insurance served as a true safety net, catching someone without work for the first time. But the same agricultural and domestic employee exclusions also applied. This program went even further, requiring a history of steady work before someone was laid off in order to get benefits — an advantage most black workers didn’t have.

Women, on the whole, fared even worse. “Policy makers operated on the assumption that the primary function of unemployment insurance was to replace the wages of male breadwinners, who were understood to earn a ‘family wage,’ ” Professor Mettler writes. Most women who worked were in intermittent or part-time jobs that didn’t qualify, nor did they make enough to meet the thresholds. Those who left work because of home obligations, such as raising children, were deemed to have left “voluntarily” and were ineligible.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which for the first time created a floor under wages and a roof over hours, ensuring that people weren’t worked to death for a pittance, again excluded farmworkers and maids. Domestic workers weren’t added until 1974, and only last year did home health aides get the same treatment.

Unionization created another economic foothold — but that, too, was mostly available to white men. The National Labor Relations Act enshrined a number of labor rights that significantly increased the movement: While just four million Americans were union members in 1929, by 1948 that reached 14.2 million. But the N.L.R.A. excluded agricultural and domestic workers. Women made up less than one-tenth of union members through 1940.

Perhaps no program was as important in creating the middle class of the 1950s and ’60s, though, as the G.I. Bill. The government spent more than $95 billion on it between 1944 and 1971, and millions of people used its benefits to buy homes, go to college, start businesses and find jobs. Women could get benefits if they served, but they made up just 400,000 out of the more than 16 million people who served during World War II.

Black men enlisted in great numbers; more than 900,000 of those who served in the war were African-American. And once they returned home, many of them applied for G.I. benefits. This time there were no formal exclusions. But the government handed implementation of the veterans’ programs down to states and localities, including those in the grips of Jim Crow.

Black veterans’ applications for business assistance were routinely denied. Those seeking a college education were crowded into limited slots in segregated institutions. Even though the mortgages were guaranteed, black borrowers had to get a bank to lend to them, and most refused. In the suburbs of New York and New Jersey, less than 100 of the 67,000 G.I. Bill-insured mortgages were for nonwhites. “The G.I. Bill did create a more middle-class society, but almost exclusively for whites,” Professor Katznelson writes.

Many of the barriers that were baked into government policy are now relics of the past. There are still enormous racial and gender wealth gaps across the country, but it’s no wonder that most minorities say things have gotten better for them compared with a half-century ago.

Mr. Trump is no small-government Republican; he’s frequently said he wants to protect some of these same programs that once excluded so many Americans. For Mr. Trump it’s about whom the government helps, not whether the government helps at all. He is promising to make the country great again, for the people who had it pretty great in the first place.


Reposted from The New York Times.


Photo from DonkeyHotey on Flickr.

Posted In: Allied Approaches