Governors across the country are clamoring for a piece of the stimulus, eager to avoid laying off state employees, hoping to put their unemployed citizens back to work and trying to avoid widespread furloughs as budgets bleed red ink. They know that their citizens want to keep libraries open, teachers in the classroom, cops on the beat and firefighters ready to protect people and property.
Except in the South. Southern governors–Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Haley Barbour of Mississippi–have been pressing the case that the federal stimulus bill is a mistake; they argue the emerging Republican orthodoxy that tax cuts are the only effective way to pull the country out of an economic black hole.
With 11 percent unemployment, South Carolina trails only hard-hit Michigan. Nonetheless, Governor Sanford plans to reject funds that would extend unemployment insurance, not to mention federal fiscal stabilization monies slated for schools and public safety, unless he receives assurance that he may use it instead to pay down the state’s debt. As ProPublica reports, the state is about to lay off teachers in large numbers as a consequence.
Not to be outdone, Jindal–who, like Sanford, is being eyed as an early contender for the 2012 GOP nomination–has announced plans to reject the unemployment money and $9.5 million in Medicaid funds that would cover health insurance for the recently unemployed in his state.
With the exception of Florida’s Charlie Crist, who joined President Obama in pushing for the stimulus package, the Southern governors are campaigning against their poorest citizens on the grounds that when the federal money runs out, they will be forced to raise local taxes.
Of course, these pronouncements are mostly bluster. Jindal is willing to accept $3.7 billion of the $3.8 billion slated for his state, but he steadfastly refuses to take the $98 million on offer to extend unemployment insurance. He and others who share his views seem particularly eager to deny the least fortunate of their own states the help they desperately need as the job market melts down around their ankles.
This hardhearted pattern is not new. It is a replay of the Southern rejection of Roosevelt’s New Deal. During the bleak years of the Depression, politicians below the Mason-Dixon line refused to provide relief to the poor and rebelled against federal intrusion into social policy. When most state governments were hemorrhaging, local and state governments across the South actually ran surpluses. How? They fired government workers and slashed funds for education and healthcare.
New Orleans, Jindal’s pride and joy, ranked last among the nation’s thirty-one largest metropolitan areas in the amount spent on relief in 1932–and was proud of it. It was the only city that made no provision for family welfare and offered no aid for needy mothers. Historian Roger Biles has pointed out that at the same time, the city council gave $10,000 (an enormous sum then) to the Chamber of Commerce to advertise nationally that the Big Easy was the “home of cheap and docile labor.”
As FDR pressed the states to join the federal government in providing for the millions who were unemployed, many politicians across the South said they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–do more for the indigent. Instead, governors accepted funds from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration while cutting the relief rolls or slashing the benefits provided to their most vulnerable citizens. Southern representatives in Congress abetted the governors and were so good at it that by 1939 the region had received only one-sixth of the federal dollars spent in the major New Deal programs, even though they had a quarter of the population. Southerners in Congress also fought for state power to determine who gets benefits and at what level–resulting in tremendous regional variations in the adequacy of public assistance that continue today.