Take a ride to a welfare neighborhood some fine morning, evenings are best avoided even in the safest such places. Don’t go in expecting Detroit. Even much of Detroit doesn’t look like Detroit. Newark and Oakland aren’t even there yet. Detroit is what happens when the load is too big and there’s no one left to carry it. Most welfare neighborhoods are still located in cities where there is someone left to pick up the tab.
You’ll see less charred buildings and more towering multistory housing projects. Some of these are the ugly bestial fortresses that date back to FDR’s championing of affordable housing. One such monster, the Knickerbocker Village, former home of the Rosenberg spies, had to be evacuated in the recent hurricane and residents lived without heat and power for weeks.
30 years later they began to run to 20 story gray and brown towers reek of hopelessness. When power company workers came to restore power to the Brooklyn shoreline, they were sent to these places first in the hopes of calming mob reaction. Instead televisions came raining down from the upper floors forcing the workers to flee for safety. But don’t expect that to happen during your visit. That sort of thing is reserved for major holidays and power outages.
More recently the trend has been smaller homes that look almost like normal housing, except that there are too many of them lined up all in rows that go on forever, and even the red brickwork and white doors quickly darken with neglect, fumes and that intangible pollutant that comes to all places where the people have nowhere to go and nothing to look forward to.
There are businesses in the welfare neighborhood, but they aren’t really independent businesses. The bodegas, cheap corner groceries stores lined with ads for cigarettes, or government ads against them, with malt liquor ads and posters for a local performance by a rap group, Hong Kong crooner or Latin singer, get most of their business from food stamps. The bodegas, despite their name, are usually run by Indians, Koreans, Arabs or Bangladeshis. The few things they sell for real money are, in order, lottery tickets, beer and the occasional magazine.
70 years ago the small corner store was part of an economic ladder. Today it’s as static as the rest of the neighborhood. Sometimes the owners make the jump to a welfare supermarket, that deals almost entirely in food stamps. Mostly though they are family businesses whose owners import some of their endless stock of cousins from the home country as unpaid labor. Sometimes the cousins marry into the family and open another one of the stores with money advanced by the patriarch of the clan, and with most of the profits going to him.
Then there are the check cashing places, where welfare checks are deposited, and money is sent home to Haiti, Mexico or Puerto Rico. These places too would dry up and go out of business without a steady supply of government money.
There are clinics, a surplus of them, running on government grants, taking in government money from their patients, and consisting of the usual uncomfortable multicultural mix of balanced groups, most of whom resent each other. There may be no supermarket in the neighborhood, no store that sells fresh fruit and vegetables, no bank or clothing store that sells anything more upscale than t-shirts and sneakers, but there will be several clinics specializing in every conceivable illness a local could come down with. And several that they can’t.
Of the few independent businesses in the area, there will be a restaurant or two, cheap and dirty, where families troop in at night and old men sit during the day, there will be churches that young people rarely go to, and there will be 99 cent stores selling things for more than that. There will be schools, large buildings, and a variety of community centers, day care centers, libraries, prep places for students; all funded by the government. There will be places for teens to sit playing video games after they leave school, full of inspiring posters about achievement. And there will be social workers to help residents fill out forms for more benefits.
Take away government benefits and the welfare neighborhood would become Detroit. Take away the government jobs, the postal workers and the petty bureaucrats, the public sector union members who dream of one day moving to the suburbs, though the suburbs they move to will shortly begin looking just like the place they live, and everything will die. Or perhaps it will be saved. It’s hard to say.
Beyond the welfare neighborhoods is the government middle class. The government middle class is not all that different from the population of the welfare neighborhoods and some of them have never bothered moving out.
The government middle class is not Detroit. It’s the people who run Detroit. It’s the people who make places like Detroit happen. For every welfare neighborhood, there are hundreds of members of the government middle class teaching their children, processing their forms and running their clinics. The money isn’t great, but their skills are generally poor and the benefits are spectacular.
Close enough for government work is a phrase born for these people. Getting things right is surplus to requirements. There is no goal to be accomplished. Just the tedious work of a civil service that was funded to manage the inner cities and cope with their problems, that has become the problem. There is as much hopelessness and failure in one of their offices as there is in any housing project. The difference is that the workers are more cheerful because while they might be doing nothing, they are doing less nothing than the men dissolutely playing dominoes or smoking cigarettes under dead trees in the courtyards of learning gray towers left over from the Great Society or the New Deal.
Some in the government middle class do genuinely care. Many of them work completely outside the welfare sector where caring still makes some kind of sense. But this was where the river of bureaucracy was born and this is where it goes to die. Some idealistic souls flit through here and then flit out again. Mostly this is a place where people with college degrees from institutions that would get a laugh from most other employees hold down jobs that no one really needs except the unions and organizations that are on a mission to expand their workforces and budgets.
No one is really happy in the government middle class. It’s not just the postal workers who hate their jobs. The difference is that the postal workers have more time to think about the angle that they will start shooting from. There is nowhere to go and not much to do. The job is hopeless, the regulations are overwhelming and the hierarchy is stifling. Nothing is ever accomplished, but group solidarity requires believing that it is and participating in new programs to learn new procedures created by clueless consultants that promise to change everything, but actually change nothing.
Working in the government middle class is exactly how liberal arts majors imagine corporate life was like in the 50s. Then they get the only job they are qualified for and discover that they can experience it all today, while their idealism dies in a little puddle on the floor. They learn to look forward to the only selling point that such work has; early retirement.
The government middle class is the most hopeless middle class in all of history. It aspires to nothing and it dreams of nothing. In previous generations its workers at least flirted with radical politics. Today you can still find some Stalinists in government offices, but most of them are old, and the rest are more likely to read Farrakhan than Karl Marx, and most will settle for 50 Shades of Grey. Their bosses are using them to take over the system from within, but they are just drones, woefully aware of how hopeless their task is, and they will show up at protests to demand more funding and resources, but mostly they just show up to protect their benefits. It’s the benefits that keep them from killing themselves. Or going on welfare.
Finally there is the government upper class. The bosses and their bosses who don’t just live in suburbs, but lived in gated communities. Racially they tend to be whiter than just about any other group that you can think of. And their neighborhoods of choice tend to be even whiter than that. Imagine the place furthest away, conceptually, though not geographically, from the welfare hood, and you arrive at the places where the consultants, the top administrators and bosses of the government class reside.
There is no hopelessness here. Everyone wears ski clothes, even when they aren’t anywhere in sight of a white powered slope. They counsel low gas mileage for others, but drive SUVs. They build cages for the government lower and middle classes, but live in sizable houses. They ride bikes, but only when they want to. In behavior and attitude, they are mostly indistinguishable from their fellow wealthy liberals. The only difference is the source of their money and the lower productivity.
It is this group that incessantly manufactures crises, constantly comes up with schemes to make a broken system work better and juggles money between private foundations and government grants, moving back and forth between professorships, government consultancies and private foundations until you need a scorecard to keep up.
They aspire to authentic things and eat up working class misery with a spoon. Many have their own hardship tales of the time they worked as a waiter to pay their tuition, because their parents had cut them off, or their time with the Peace Corps in Africa or with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. Religion is a vague thing to them, but they associate anti-materialism with spirituality and use the plight of the well-off as their own private church. Movies like Precious or Winter’s Bone are their poverty porn that they then use to justify their abuses of power. Because people are suffering.
Elizabeth Warren is one of the breed. As are countless others just like her. There is an endless crowd of them, all dressing down, embracing what they think is authenticity, their voice frozen into a lecturing tone, their bookshelves crowded with inspiring tales of white people helping others in the Third World and finding their deeper soul in the process. They all have too many degrees, too many plans and too much power.
Some are dogmatically of the left. Many more are cluelessly so, mouthing dogma that they do not really understand and that has been boiled down for them into simple terms. These don’t see politics, just a nebulous compassion that requires forcing everyone to pay for the good of the less fortunate, even if that money incidentally goes to line their own pockets. And worse still, even the most apolitical of this group, have developed an innate busybody allegiance to rules. They are the six and seven figure hall monitors who have become convinced that people need keeping tabs on and that no community can achieve its best self without people like them to compel everyone to follow the rules.
If they are in a position where they cannot make rules, they will seek one out, in some volunteer capacity, such as a homeowner’s association, that will allow them to do it. They are cheerful control freaks who dress up an innate lust for power in ski parkas, morning bike rides with the kids and lists of rules and penalties so long that a KGB agent would be set back on his heels. They do not think of themselves as the police state, they even like to imagine themselves as rebels and risk takers, but they are the backbone of the emerging progressive police state
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish