from The New York Times
Race and the Social Contract
By EDUARDO PORTER
Published: March 31, 2008
In 1893, Friedrich Engels wrote from London to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, another German Communist then living in New York, lamenting how America’s diversity hindered efforts to establish a workers’ party in the United States. Was it possible to unify Poles, Germans, Irish, “the many small groups, each of which understands only itself”? All the bourgeoisie had to do was wait, “and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.”
America’s mix of peoples has changed in its 200-plus years. Yet when Barack Obama delivered his bracing speech on race, he was grappling with a similar challenge. “Realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams,” he said. “Investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”
It is a tall order. Ten years ago, William Julius Wilson wrote that American whites rebelled against welfare because they saw it as using their hard-earned taxes to give blacks “medical and legal services that many of them could not afford for their own families.”
As obviously sensible as Mr. Obama’s proposition might be in a nation of as many hues, tongues and creeds as the United States, it struggles against self-defeating human behavior: racial and ethnic diversity undermine support for public investment in social welfare. For all the appeal of America’s melting pot, the country’s diverse ethnic mix is one main reason for entrenched opposition to public spending on the public good.
Among the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of industrial countries, only Mexicans, Koreans and Greeks pay less in taxes than Americans, as a share of the economy. The United States also ranks near the bottom on public spending on social programs: 19 percent of the nation’s total output in 2003, compared with 29 percent in Sweden, 23 percent in Portugal and almost 30 percent in France.
The Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser correlated public spending in Western Europe and the United States with diversity and concluded that half the social-spending gap was due to the United States’ more varied racial and ethnic mix. The other half was mostly due to the existence of stronger left-wing parties in Europe.
Americans are not less generous than Europeans. When private charities are included, they probably spend more money for social purposes than Europeans do. But philanthropy allows them to target spending on those they personally believe are deserving, instead of allowing the government to choose.
Mr. Glaeser’s and Mr. Alesina’s work suggests that white Europeans support a big welfare state because they believe the money will probably go to other white Europeans. In America, the Harvard economist Erzo F. P. Luttmer found that support for social spending among respondents to General Social Survey polls increased in tandem with the share of welfare recipients in the area who were in their own racial group. A study of charity by Daniel Hungerman, a Notre Dame economist, found that all-white congregations become less charitably active as the share of black residents in the local community grows.
This breakdown of solidarity should be unacceptable in a country that is, after all, mainly a nation of immigrants, glued together by a common project and many shared values. The United States has showed an unparalleled capacity to pull together in challenging times. Americans have invested blood and treasure to serve a broad national purpose and to rescue and protect their allies across the Atlantic.
Still, racial and ethnic antagonism all too frequently limit generosity at home. In one study, Mr. Alesina, with Reza Baqir of the International Monetary Fund and William Easterly of New York University, found that the share of municipal spending in the United States devoted to social good — roads, sewage, education and trash clearance — was smaller in more racially diverse cities.
While this tension manifests mainly along racial lines, it has broader ethnic, religious and even linguistic dimensions. A 2003 study by Julian Betts of the University of California, San Diego, and Robert Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that for every four immigrants who arrived in public high schools, one native student switched to a private school.
Politicians, from Richard Nixon to Tom Tancredo, have long exploited racial tensions. But there is nothing inevitable about ethnic animosities, as Senator Obama argued in his speech, which came at an important moment.
Globalization presents the United States with an enormous challenge. Rising to the test will require big investments in the public good — from infrastructure to education to a safety net protecting those most vulnerable to change. Americans must once again show their ability to transcend group interests for a common national cause.