Jason Riley interviewed Walter Williams, in an article published in the Wall Street Journal, for the release of his new autobiography: Up from the Projects. In the book, Williams describes his own experience of growing up black and poor in the 40s and 50s, and contrasts it with the experiences of black youth in America today. His conclusion is that government programs that were implemented to help black Americans, have had, and are continuing to have, very destructive impacts on African American’s lives.
“The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do,” Mr. Williams says. “And that is to destroy the black family.” …
Mr. Williams distinguished himself in the mid-1970s through his research on the effects of the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931-which got the government involved in setting wage levels-and on the impact of minimum-wage law on youth and minority unemployment. He concluded that minimum wages caused high rates of teenage unemployment, particularly among minority teenagers. His research also showed that Davis-Bacon, which requires high prevailing (read: union) wages on federally financed or assisted construction projects, was the product of lawmakers with explicitly racist motivations.
One of Congress’s goals at the time was to stop black laborers from displacing whites by working for less money. Missouri Rep. John Cochran said that he had “received numerous complaints in recent months about Southern contractors employing low-paid colored mechanics.” And Alabama Rep. Clayton Allgood fretted about contractors with “cheap colored labor . . . of the sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.”
Today just 17% of construction workers are unionized, but Democratic politicians, in deference to the AFL-CIO, have kept Davis-Bacon in place to protect them. Because most black construction workers aren’t union members, however, the law has the effect of freezing them out of jobs. It also serves to significantly increase the costs of government projects, since there are fewer contractors to bid on them than there would be without Davis-Bacon.
As states and the federal government are faced with the need for big spending cuts, policymakers should take Walter Williams’ insights to heart. Government policies should be evaluated based on their outcomes, not their intentions. Welfare policy, as good-hearted as the concept may sound, is contributing to out-of-wedlock births, poverty, unemployment, and crime. Less government welfare would likely result in more effective welfare by making room for more private charitable giving. The independence and decentralized nature of private charity makes it much more effective at serving the poor. Unfortunately, government welfare crowds out private giving.
Additionally, the continuing high rate of unemployment in the United States, should lead to a serious assessment of the effects of minimum wage policies. Walter Williams offers many insights into that topic as well, showing that minimum wage laws, contrary to their intended purpose, tend to hurt the very poor and less-educated the most. A low-paying job, that at the least provides the employee with much-needed training and skills, and may thus lead to a better-paying position down the road, is much preferred over dependency- inducing welfare payments.