Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Race Matters

I was a bit surprised to read about this new book in the Economist, which is generally fairly contemptuous and clueless of racial issues and government poverty relief efforts. And, the authors Alesina and Glaeser aren't exactly known for being wild-eyed liberals.

Racial diversity in individual states is correlated with the generosity of welfare. For instance, the authors find that in 1990 Aid to Families with Dependent Children ranged from over $800 per family per month in mainly white Alaska to less than $150 in Alabama and Mississippi, where almost one-third of the population is black. Even after adjustment for inter-state differences in average incomes, the correlation with race remained strong. Across countries, too, racial diversity goes with low government spending on poverty relief.

The reason, argue the authors, is that "race matters," and they marshal statistical evidence, much of it from opinion surveys, to back this up. People are likely to support welfare if they live close to recipients of their own race; but are antipathetic if they live near recipients from another race. The divergent attitudes of Europeans and Americans to the poor are underwritten by the fact that the poor in Europe tend to be ethnically the same as most other folk. In America, their skin is often a different colour.

The authors say that "political entrepreneurs," eager to use race as an excuse to turn the poor against redistribution, shape attitudes to race and to poverty. At different times, America has had its share. Is Europe immune? Look at the successes of the likes of Jorg Haider and Pim Fortuyn, and wonder. The recent evolution of Europe as a destination of mass migration, much more ethnically diverse than America's in most of the past century, will test the durability of the European welfare state.