Make America 'great' again?

Mr Donald Trump has promised to Make America Great Again, and people have listened. He is the apparent Republican nominee. He got there with that one consistent campaign imperative splashed across his website, on loud red baseball caps, on stickers, yard signs and other slogan-ready paraphernalia.

This is the one true, unwavering message he offers his supporters.

Which America is he promising to us? If you ask his supporters, they say life has got worse for people like them over the last 50 years. It seems safe to assume that, in the eyes of his overwhelmingly white male fans, America was greater a half-century ago.

It's not just that factory jobs were more plentiful or that women and minorities were largely kept from positions of power. Large programmes that radically changed the country kept America great specifically for white men. New Deal-era systems like Social Security and unemployment insurance; rules that demarcated minimum wages and maximum work hours and protected unionisation; and the GI Bill at the end of World War II substantially transformed the country and created a booming middle class. But they all purposefully left out most women and minorities.

Social Security's main programme was old-age insurance. It was meant to ensure that old age wasn't synonymous with poverty. The Social Security Act of 1935, which created this and other key programmes, was groundbreaking: It is the most comprehensive and influential social programme the country has ever enacted.

But it was implemented with enormous loopholes. To gain the votes of Southern Democrats who wanted to protect the Jim Crow structures of the South, agricultural and domestic workers were cut out. Given that more than 60 per cent of the black labour force in the 1930s could be found in these jobs - including nearly 85 per cent of black women - about two-thirds of all black people were denied, as Professor Ira Katznelson writes in his book When Affirmative Action Was White. Those exclusions stood until the mid-1950s.

Political scientist Suzanne Mettler has shown in her work Dividing Citizens that women, who made up more than 90 per cent of domestic workers at the time, were also cut out by the exclusion of "casual" or temporary workers. And these were the very workers who were making such low wages that saving for retirement was virtually impossible.

Unemployment insurance served as a true safety net. But the same agricultural and domestic employee exclusions also applied. This programme went even further, requiring a history of steady work before someone was laid off in order to get benefits - an advantage most black workers didn't have.

Women, on the whole, fared even worse. "Policymakers operated on the assumption that the primary function of unemployment insurance was to replace the wages of male breadwinners, who were understood to earn a 'family wage'," Professor Mettler writes.

Most women who worked were in intermittent or part-time jobs that didn't qualify, nor did they make enough to meet the thresholds. Those who left work because of home obligations, such as raising children, were deemed to have left "voluntarily" and were ineligible.

The Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938, ensuring that people weren't worked to death for a pittance, again excluded farm workers and maids. Domestic workers weren't added until 1974, and only last year did home health aides get the same treatment.

Unionisation created another economic foothold - but that, too, was mostly available to white men. The National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) enshrined a number of labour rights that significantly increased the movement: While just four million Americans were union members in 1929, by 1948 that reached 14.2 million. But the NLRA excluded agricultural and domestic workers. Women made up less than one-tenth of union members through 1940.

Perhaps no programme was as important in creating the middle class of the 1950s and 60s, though, as the GI Bill. The government spent more than US$95 billion on it between 1944 and 1971, and millions of people used its benefits to buy homes, go to college, start businesses and find jobs. Women could get benefits if they served, but they made up just 400,000 out of the more than 16 million people who served during World War II.

Black men enlisted in great numbers: More than 900,000 of those who served in the war were African-American. And once they returned home, many of them applied for GI benefits. This time there were no formal exclusions. But the government handed implementation of the veterans' programmes down to states and localities, including those in the grips of Jim Crow.

Black veterans' applications for business assistance were routinely denied. Those seeking a college education were crowded into limited slots in segregated institutions. Even though the mortgages were guaranteed, black borrowers had to get a bank to lend to them, and most refused.

Many of the barriers that were baked into government policy are now relics of the past. There are still enormous racial and gender wealth gaps across the country, but it's no wonder that most minorities say things have got better for them compared with a half-century ago.

Mr Trump is no small- government Republican; he has frequently said he wants to protect some of these same programmes that once excluded so many Americans. He is promising to make the country great again, for the people who had it pretty great in the first place.

NEW YORK TIMES

• Bryce Covert is the economic policy editor at ThinkProgress and a contributor to The Nation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Make America 'great' again?'. Print Edition | Subscribe