The Invisible Poor in South Carolina
The UK Guardian’s Gary Younge spent a few weeks in South Carolina prior to the presidential primaries. The posts have been pretty good, and he has been predictably wall-eyed over some of the more distinctive aspects of the very finest state of the U S A. As an outsider, he does see the reality of discrimination and poverty with a fresh eye, as in this report of January 23, 2008:
The invisible poor (Guardian video)
Gary Younge reports from Charleston, South Carolina, where he meets the people who the presidential candidates would rather remain hidden: the poor.
Official U.S. government estimates that 15.6 % of the SC population lives in poverty. Internally the poverty rate ranges from a low of 11.2% in Oconee and Dorchester Counties to a high of 38.3% in Allendale County. This translates into a lack of insurance and shortened lifespans. In 2003, about 9% of South Carolinians under 19 did not have health insurance and of these, 25% received no medical care in that year. This is versus 14% of the insured children who received no medical care over the same period. Obviously, the opportunities for South Carolina children to obtain health care are reduced.
That’s a lot of people in pretty bad shape. The government figures don’t tell the whole story, the poverty rate is based on outdated and arbitrary data (see also here). The true rate may be more situational. As with the Charleston couple in the video: if you are one paycheck away from utter destitution, then you are poor, no matter how many appliances you own.
The state economy is stagnant, with a relatively high official employment rate (which can be doubled by adding those that have stopped looking for work). The response of the political establishment will be to cut taxes and encourage growth through marquee development like the BMW plant in Greer.
There is a certain amount of logic in Barak Obama’s riff on getting Republicans to endorse “common sense” solutions to economic problems. I think Obama means “neo-Keynsian” when he says “common sense” I might be wrong, but it seems like a safe bet that what he’d propose, when ever he gets around to it, would be rooted in the interventionist economics traditionally associated with the Democratic Party. It is also common sense to assume that a number of Republicans would come on board and support these solutions if the situation is extreemen enough and the solutions are suitably business friendly and packaged in a bipartisan manner. This is what happened in the Great Depression and to an extent in the mid-60’s, in bad times and good times.
There are some not-common sense reasons why the appeal to Republican voters, not in this state, and that is that the Republican voters are largely racists or are tolerant of racism.
Racism is endemic to SC and only a progressive or revolutionary politics can attack it. I don’t think you’ll find those words in another sentence written this year. The politics here are thoroughly un-progressive and casually reactionary. South Carolina is down on the organization of working people: the Governor, the Judicary, the Legislature and the Powers that Be are all for big business.
This was a slave state, where a minority owned a majority of the population, where every dastardly, criminal and immoral act that could be committed was countenanced to deny freed slaves and their descendants the right to vote, and where the only attempts at union organization have been starved out, most notably the 1935 General Textile Strike. During the strike, the United Textile Workers Union of America organized “coloured” locals in the South. This kind of limited joint organization between the races (segregation within a single union) is the only mass example of such shared action in the post-Reconstruction history of the South. It probably only existed because the enormous scale of the strike provided some cover: political (there was a revolutionary spirit in the air) and criminal (the Law could intimidate but not arrest all the strikers). So the social shame was lessened, and poor people established relationships that would be impossible before or after.
History may have moved on in a sense. Governor Sanford (R) can beat on the current (1895) state constitution by linking it with Pitchfork Ben Tillman, but he’s just scoring political points. Sanford wants a constitutional convention to create a strong executive, not finish the work of Reconstruction or grant reparations to slaves’ decendants.
Neither the Governor nor the Legislature, nor the Presidential candidates are addressing economic security of ordinary people and the reason is systemic. Economic security has been eroded in SC since the textile industry tanked after the Guaranteed Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade liberalized textile imports. (Around here, most people will tell you that NAFTA killed the textile industry. NAFTA was part of the same process of trade liberalization, but is technically distinct from NAFTA as an agreement, I think.) This had been dreaded for years, but employers approach to problem was profoundly incoherent. Textile magnates donated cash to conservative anti-union, anti-tax, anti-affirmative action politicians and think tanks on one hand, then pumped up the region with boosterism like Roger Milliken’s “Power of Pride” campaign, which countered Reagan’s laizze fair economics with the power of positive thinking in the textile industry. It must have occured to SC’s local plutocrats that the trend of anti-union, anti-tax, anti-affirmative action politics would also were also free-trade in everything including textiles. They knew they were caught in a bind and correspondingly cut back on upgrades and improvements beginning in the 80’s (Except for Milliken, who had the cash to spare for research). So the mill owners accepted the inevitable deluge. Some owners sold out, some closed up but even the worst situated mill executive must have been better off than the mill workers, who had no unions, no cross-racial organizations, and were discouraged from collective political initiative on the job and off. This side of South Carolina wasn’t explored in the U.S. media. NPR twinned a report on the good times in Greenville with a human interest story of a Laurens County man living without income and caring for his Alzheimer’s afflicted mother, but it is not archived on their web site. CNN appears to have done no stories even mentioning the subject of poverty in SC. Greg Palast did post to the Monthly Review’s blog detailing the state’s anti-union recent history.
With the onset of a recession and the debacle of the ongoing war, there is evidence enough that the country is headed in the wrong direction to make an impresson in both major parties. Not surprisingly the movement of SC Republicans is not toward a social solution. The problem for the free marketers is that a social solution would run up against the prejudices against giving any kind of a break to populations that racist whites despise: historically African-Americans, today also immigrant communities.
The idea that immigrants bring poverty is widespread on the Right, in the polite circles of the Heritage Foundation. This attack on “entitlements” is a successor to the arguments of David Stockman and Newt Gingrich that notion of the “deserving poor” who can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. The corollary is the idea that some populations are inherently undeserving and that there are no populations who can prove that they are deserving, when any individual counterexample would be taken as fraud. So the white folks horror of contigation by immigrants is the successor to Reagan’s horrible old wives tales about welfare queens. It puts the commonweal in a den of iniquity.
For this reason, there is a lot of support for Ron Paul in SC. Not generally, but among the white folks who can still get worked up about politics. Paul only got 3.6% of the Republican primary vote, but his poll workers were as active as anybody and his somewhat generic commercials were ubiquitious.
Individualist Libertarians supporting Paul don’t seem to understand the attraction that his candidacy holds for racists. Paul appeared to have captured the hard-core nexus of the anti-political and xenophobic constituencies: people who despise government for its enforcement of a civil society with people that they’d rather avoid would prefer to do away with government altogether.
While it may seem ironic that they would actively work politically toward the delimitation of politics, its really no different than the power of any group taking advatage of the pro-business attitude of ideologues who hate government as a cover for a racist agenda that is really anti-polity or anti-civil society.
Paul will fade out of the GOP race, but his insurgency is an uncomfortable crossover of the public form of politics with the inhuman agenda of business. That crossover may not appear so close to the surface of any other campaign, but it is there in the jargon of any capitalist campaign.