“My reckless behavior intensified, and not a day would pass that I did not get high on drugs. Within a few months [of my third abortion] I was pregnant again, and this time it was not my boyfriend’s baby. Knowing his temperament and drug disposition, my boyfriend might have killed me if he found out I had been messing around on him. My first thought was I had to move, and fast. The only place I knew where an unemployed, drug-addicted, pregnant runaway rebel could go for help was the government. I could think of no other option but the Department of Social Services. Besides, they had worked hard in the past to save me from the natural consequences of my actions.”
That is how Star Parker describes her life as a welfare junkie, before a challenge from her minister convinced her that welfare was slavery, that the welfare state was a plantation, and that she would be better off without “help” from the government. “The next day,” she says, “I wrote a letter to my caseworker and told her to take my name off the government dole.” After a rough start (“Three months later I was still unemployed and completely broke”), she went on to become a businesswoman, a community activist, a 2010 Republican candidate for Congress, and the author of Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do About It.
The title promises a controversial book and Ms. Parker delivers. She collides head-on with the liberal mythology that poverty is the product of racism and sexism. Instead, she shows, the liberal agenda since the Great Society has done more to harm the poor in general, and poor black women like her in particular, than any conspiracy of male chauvinists and the Ku Klux Klan. She argues that the real culprits are feminists who tell women they don’t need marriage, educators who teach everything about sex except abstinence, and black teenagers who believe that studying together is “acting white”. The result is an epidemic of households headed by single African-American women without high school diplomas. These households are poor: 60% of unmarried black mothers have annual incomes less than $25,000. Once on the plantation, addiction to handouts keeps them there. Those with an inclination to escape will find the Underground Railroad put out of business by minimum wage laws that destroy jobs (the “National Black Teen Unemployment Act”) and tax policies that punish success (“legal plunder”).
Ms. Parker’s prose is easy to read and often quotable; my personal favorite: “[T]he only 100 percent successful method of birth control is to take the Pill – and hold it between your knees.” A chapter that outlines the various government programs that make up “welfare” is a useful primer for those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with them. And although the subject is grim, Ms. Parker remains upbeat – she never becomes so absorbed in what she is against that she forgets what she is for: traditional families, individual responsibility, God, education, and freedom. “[T]he point of freedom,” she reminds us, echoing Rush Limbaugh, “is to allow Man to rise to what he can become.”
Uncle Sam’s Plantation does have shortcomings. Although Ms. Parker presents many intriguing statistics, she generally does not provide sources for them; there are neither endnotes nor footnotes. It appears she sewed the book together from material that she wrote over a long period of time. The seams show; in various places we are told that the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade is 30 million, 40 to 45 million, and 50 million. And although she lays out the case for traditional marriage and small government competently, Ms. Parker does so without the humor of a Rush Limbaugh or the careful economic analysis of a Milton Friedman.
But Star Parker can do one thing that no other leading conservative can: speak firsthand about poverty. The chapters where she describes her own experiences and those of the people around are the most vivid and heartbreaking in the book. We see Ms. Parker on the Oprah show, desperately trying – and failing – to convince a welfare mom that she too can stand on her own. “Facts did not seem to matter, however, as she became more adamant by the minute that she would die and her kids would starve if we changed the rules governing welfare benefits.” We also learn about Ms. Parker’s ex-boyfriend Drew who she finds years after their break-up sleeping at a bus stop. “Drew was tall, poised, smooth-talking, and very handsome even as a boy,” she writes. “His mom’s friends spoiled him. His mom smothered him.” Now he was homeless and addicted to crack. “The drugs had so distorted his once flawless face and dreamy eyes. He didn’t recognize me but wanted to know if I could spare some change.”
But if there is heartbreak on Uncle Sam’s Plantation, there is also hope. We visit a church school in Peru where the classrooms are “dreary and bare” but the students are learning. We also meet the luckless Judy, who, with her husband and children, has endured foreclosure, auto repossession, and years of low-paying employment, but who “still has that million-dollar smile, and her family would never know that the government has classified them as poor.”
Last November Star Parker lost her bid to represent the Compton/Long Beach section of Los Angeles County in the United States Congress. The people of her district, many of them poor, re-elected Laura Richardson, a two-term incumbent with a 100% approval rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Congresswoman Richardson’s website trumpets the various government grants she has obtained for her district. I hope that someday Uncle Sam’s Plantation shows the residents of Compton and Long Beach, and the rest of the nation, that there is a better way.