A couple of months ago I asked When and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (professor at Louisiana State University) provides the answer: about 100 years ago. From the book:
[Teddy] Roosevelt was an unabashed eugenicist. He used the bully pulpit of his office to insist that women had a critical civic duty to breed a generation of healthy and disciplined children. He first endorsed eugenics in 1903, and two years later he laid out his beliefs in speech before the Congress of Mothers. Worried about “race suicide,” as he put it, he recommended that women of Anglo-American stock have four to six children, “enough so the race shall increase and not decrease.”
Because children produced by unfit parents could cost taxpayers if they became criminals, society had the right to protect itself. Far more dangerous was the cost to the nation’s human stock if degenerates were allowed to breed. In 1913, Roosevelt wrote supportively to the leading eugenicist Charles Davenport that it was the patriotic duty of every good citizen of superior stock to leave his or her “blood behind.” Degenerates, he warned, must not be permitted to “reproduce their kind.”50 It was during the eugenic craze that reformers called for government incentives to ensure better breeding. This was when the idea of tax exemptions for children emerged. Theodore Roosevelt criticized the new income tax law for allowing exemptions for only two children, discouraging parents from having a third or fourth. He wanted monetary rewards for breeding, akin to the baby bonuses established in Australia in 1912. He also promoted mothers’ pensions for widows—an idea that caught on. As one defender of pensions claimed in 1918, the widowed mother was “as much a servant of the State as a judge or general.” Her child-rearing duties were no less a public service than if she had toiled on the battlefield. Like Selective Service, which weeded out inferior soldiers, the pensions were allotted exclusively to “a fit mother.”
The author describes a group of Americans who mostly marry within their group and who have low academic and economic achievement that persists for centuries.
By the 1850s, poor whites had become a permanent class. As nonslaveholders, they described themselves as “farmers without farms.”
World War I fueled the eugenics campaign. … The war advanced the importance of intelligence testing. Goddard had created the “moron” classification by using the Binet-Simon test, which was succeeded by the IQ (intelligence quotient) scale promoted by Stanford professor Lewis Terman and then used by the U.S. Army. The army’s findings only served to confirm a long-held, unpropitious view of the South, since both poor white and black recruits from southern states had the lowest IQ scores. Overall, the study found that the mean intelligence of the soldier registered at the moron level—the equivalent of a “normal” thirteen-year-old boy. Given the results, observers wondered if poor white men were dragging down the rest of the nation.
Throughout the book Professor Isenberg argues using proof by repeated assertion that there is no genetic component to this group’s failure to get educated, to get good jobs, to support liberal Democrats, etc.
Location is everything. Location determines access to a privileged school, a safe neighborhood, infrastructural improvements, the best hospitals, the best grocery stores. Upper- and middle-class parents instruct their children in surviving their particular class environment. They give them the appropriate material resources toward this end. But let us devote more thought to what Henry Wallace wrote in 1936: what would happen, he posed, if one hundred thousand poor children and one hundred thousand rich children were all given the same food, clothing, education, care, and protection? Class lines would likely disappear.
Statistical measurement has shown convincingly that the best predictor of success is the class status of one’s forebears. Ironically, given the American Revolutionaries’ hatred for Old World aristocracies, Americans transfer wealth today in the fashion of those older societies, while modern European nations provide considerably more social services to their populations. … Class wealth and privileges are a more important inheritance (as a measure of potential) than actual genetic traits.
This is some of the same rationale that leads legislators and judges to set up the family courts such that money is transferred, after a brief marriage, from a high-income litigant to a low-income one (see the Rationale chapter of Real World Divorce). Isenberg doesn’t reference The Son Also Rises, in which the economist author presents data suggesting that inheriting money from parents is a small factor in individual success. Successful parents tended to have successful children, but that was true whether they had 1 child who inherited everything or 10 children who shared the inheritance pie.
Yet she explains Dolly Parton’s achievements in terms of genetics:
Maureen Dowd quipped that Palin was a “country-music queen without the music.” She lacked the self-deprecating humor of Dolly Parton—not to mention the natural talent.
So there are no genes that relate to academic and career achievement, but Dolly Parton has “natural” (genetic?) talent and that is why people want to hear her sing and play the guitar?
The book also contains an economics lesson. It is not a poor education, lack of willingness to work hard, or mediocre skills that keep Americans from earning as much as folks in Singapore (CIA Factbook; we’re now behind Ireland too). Poverty could be practically eliminated, at no cost to taxpayers, by changing a single number:
a depressed minimum wage keeps millions in poverty
Roughly half of Americans are oppressed due to gender:
We know, too, that women historically have had fewer civil protections than corporations
(Did she test this theory by starting a corporation, sending it a bar to meet a married dermatologist, and then seeing if the corporation could collect a few $million in tax-free child support?)
Many of the remainder are oppressed by their own stupidity:
we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest. These people are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle. The deceivers offer essentially the same fear-laden message that the majority of southern whites heard when secession was being weighed.
(but it is not genetics that accounts for their credulity in failing to vote for Democrats)
The One-Percenters are ruining it for everyone else:
In 2009, the 1 percent paid 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent. States penalized the poor with impunity.
(How can this calculation be performed? The poorest 20 percent of Americans would quality for subsidized public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or Obamacare, an Obamaphone, etc. (total average cost to taxpayers over $60,000) What is the “income” of a person who gets almost everything for free from the government?)
Conservative Americans are bad people:
Poor women lost state-funded abortions during the Carter years, and today they are proscribed from using welfare funds to buy disposable diapers. To modern conservatives, women are first and foremost breeders.
(Let’s assume that she is right about “conservatives” obstructing the purchase of diapers. If they are opposed to more babies, doesn’t this make them stupid? The source of this allegation against “conservatives” seems to be that food stamps or SNAP cannot be used to buy diapers or any other non-food item. But welfare moms who get TANF or similar cash benefits can in fact buy diapers with them (example from California).)
The evidence that Republicans are stupid and simplistic is remarkably strong:
Through a process of rationalization, people have long tended to blame failure on the personal flaws of individuals—this has been the convenient refrain of Republicans in Congress in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when former Speaker of the House John Boehner publicly equated joblessness with personal laziness.