Guest Column: Welfare: the good, the bad and the history

By Mark Hughes

In our public discourse and debate there are a lot of well-intended discussions around corporate responsibility, and the term “corporate welfare” seems to be thrown around rather frequently. Lately I have seen that the objective of the use of the term “corporate welfare” is to shame corporations into ensuring that they are paying their employees livable wages.

Corporations should be held accountable for much more than just providing livable wages. But using the term “corporate welfare” is a bad idea. We have to revisit history to understand why.

The term “welfare” should be one that we as progressives reclaim. This nation was founded on the premise of caring for the citizenry, and the preamble to our Constitution makes “promoting the general welfare” a clear intention. The New Deal (though intended for whites [but so was the constitution]) sought to swing the pendulum of priorities back to the “welfare” of the people. The civil rights movement emerged in 1964 and matured in 1968.

Conservative political strategists stoked the flames of race by inciting contempt for and fear of blacks. With a high percentage of blacks on “welfare,” they were placed at the root of our national economic struggle, although more whites received welfare in number.

A false narrative of scarcity exacerbated racial animus, and white people took their fears to the polls. Small government, competition and individualism, amalgamated with racism, once again turned us away from being a nation of people and moved us to being a nation of corporations. Nixon and Reagan added fuel to the fire to make sure that America understood that “welfare” was a bad word.

As a nation, we still have a responsibility to care for one another in times of need. Welfare is as important as ever to ensure that those who are not of able body, sound mind or good fortune are not left destitute or oppressed. It is on us to reclaim the word and contextualize it properly, and not play into the dog whistles that rest on our history of racism.

When we call corporations out by using terms like “corporate welfare,” we feed into the false narrative that welfare is somehow a bad thing. We add credence to ongoing efforts to deny people the help that they desperately need. We also fan the flames of hatred with race-baiting language that continues to incite fear, which folks in turn carry to the polls.

There is no doubt that corporations and the rich must pay their fare share. Perhaps it might be a better approach to create a social responsibility regulatory assessment for corporations that lives at the crossroads of compliance, taxes and offsets. This would ensure that corporations are held accountable for social, racial, environmental and economic justice.

We need more than reckless political rhetoric to hold corporations accountable, and it must all be tied to their bottom line because that is the only thing they understand. Politicians must have the will to say the words, regardless of the perceived anticipated outcome: We must raise taxes on the rich. 

And still she calls, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 Mark Hughes is executive director of Justice for All, a Montpelier-based nonprofit, online at