By Harry DeRienzo
On April 25th, the United States Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, announced this administration’s proposal to raise the tenant share of subsidized rent to 35%. At present, the tenant share is 30%. The result will be substantial increases in rent for the most vulnerable, income-limited families in the nation, including upwards of 200,000 households in New York City alone.
What impact will this have? A joint study done by the New York City Housing Authority and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development looked at the impact. The study was broken up into two groups – those living in public housing and those living in private sector housing with rental vouchers. The results they came up with are difficult to dispute since every recipient household receiving rental assistance is required to re-certify each and every year by personally appearing for review, along with all household members.
For non-elderly and non-disabled households with vouchers, the average gross household income for those households with children is $22,444. These are households with family members who work. These households have transportation costs, healthcare costs, child care costs, along with all the expenses that go along with keeping families in New York City properly housed and fed. It goes without saying that these households have extremely limited disposable income. But under newly proposed rules, these families would pay 35% of their income instead of 30% as their share of rent. The average increase in rents for these families would be about 20%. This is due not only to the increased share that tenants will be required to pay, but also due to other changes. These families would no longer be able to use any part of their child care costs to offset their rent share (even though this supports the ability of adult household members to obtain and retain gainful employment); these families would no longer be able to deduct health care costs to offset income to determine their share of rent. In other words, the newly proposed rules will take households that are struggling at the very margins of subsistence, and make their living circumstances worse – nothing short of punishing not just poor people, but people who are perceived as comprising the non-white, non-deserving poor in our country. The projected average increase in public housing tenant rents is even higher: 40%.
How does one explain this? I have heard that this is nothing more than an attempt to pay for the recent “tax reform” legislation. I have heard that this is intended as a figurative “slap” in the face of politicians such as Senator Charles Schumer, who Trump apparently despises. But I think this goes much deeper that these rather convenient explanations.
When Trump campaigned, he employed the mantra “Make America Great Again,” which many viewed as just another way of saying, “Make America White Again.” Basically, where Ronald Reagan used the phrase “State’s Rights” as code for white supremacy, Donald Trump uses the adverb, “again,” to suggest a return to a former position or condition – but for whom? It does not take much reflection to conclude that this message was intended to resonate with white people who feel that their current status as favored citizens is not what it once was.
Now, Trump has kept many of his promises – mostly in the areas of trade, taxes, and regulatory “reform.” But in terms of being the “greatest job producer that God has ever created,” not only has Trump fallen short but he has promised to implement policies that could impact negatively on job growth, not to mention the auto industry that will be hurt by announced tariffs on metals. This is an industry that Trump was going to make “bigger and better than ever.”
So if a politician is not able to deliver on the promise of making winners (“We’re gonna win so much that you may even get tired of winning”) out of losers, what is there to do? The answer is to compensate by making others suffer. That is why we have these policies coming out of the White House that seem downright mean-spirited and evil. They are intended to publicly hurt people who have historically been subjugated or outright excluded in the workforce, in the workplace, in residential settings, in educational settings, in business, in sports, in the electoral process, and so many others social, political, recreational and economic arenas. By hurting these people, we are “elevating” others whose rise is not factual, but emotional. Trump caters to the basest instincts of our citizens.
In the 1930s, W.E.B.DuBois described this phenomenon, which then and now is often overlooked. Racial considerations are often discounted in discussions of inequality and lumped into more general categories of income and wealth disparity experienced by all working people. But if that were the case, then why is there not more solidarity among population groups that suffer from the common causes of income and wealth disparity? Why do Donald Trump’s veiled racism and shrouded calls for a return to white supremacy resonate so well – not only with low income whites, but also with whites in general?
This phenomenon goes back centuries, motivated by those concerned with indentured servants and slaves collaborating on common causes. And even though some of these collaborations were abhorrent (violence spurred on by property owners who wanted a means and an excuse to eliminate or displace Native Americans from land surrounding European settlements), such collaborations were still seen as a threat to the propertied class of elites who controlled the land, capital, markets and local politics. Since (obviously) these people were greatly outnumbered by the exploited classes, this was viewed as a real threat. Over time, indentured servitude was replaced entirely by slavery, with the progeny of indentured servants serving as overseers and low-wage workers who could claim that their social and economic status might be low, but not as low as that of slaves, a claim that carried over into the post-slavery era..
In DuBois’ book, Black Reconstruction, he refers the “psychological wages” of whiteness:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and tides of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.
This book was published in 1935. How much has changed? Well, what has primarily changed is the insecurity wrought by technology and a global economy that has marginalized increased numbers of workers, thus creating increasing economic insecurity for those who not only survived and even thrived in a wage-based economy, but also were able to contrast their lot with the lot of black and other workers of color. Additionally, the trappings of Jim Crow – the window dressing of purported white supremacy – have all but disappeared. Without this publicly sanctioned separation, the economic and social fragility of the white working class is all the more apparent.
So when Ben Carson, or any Trump administration official, announces policies framed by goals of “self-sufficiency,” “fiscal integrity,” “personal responsibility,” or the like, we should look beyond these terms and understand that there remains political and economic value in dividing all those who make up the exploited and marginalized people of this country. And facts on the ground are no impediment. A substantial number of whites benefit from federal rental subsidies. But the perception becomes the political reality with real life implications when Ronald Reagan implied that all women on public assistance are black “welfare queens” trading in their food stamps for vodka. Perception becomes political reality when a Republican voter can complain about Obama wanting socialized health care, but then warning that he better not touch her Medicare. Perception becomes reality when Ben Carson offers to punish those viewed as the “takers” of society, without recognition that facts belie this deception. Social division serves those who need to divert attention from the injustices that play out daily in our political and economic systems. Unfortunately, race triggers passions not easily replicated when speaking solely in terms of economics. Fighting amongst ourselves continues to enslave us all. This President is obsessed with maintaining his core base of low wage/low income whites, which at least partially explains why his policies are so extreme and hurtful. He knows the racial basis of this loyalty, and he must remain true and consistent with his racially charged messaging. But buyer beware: tolerance of such messaging, evident throughout our political infrastructure, and the implications of this tolerance manifested in public policy, is a sure path to fascism, which thrives on social division, individual isolation and scapegoats.