On liberal college campuses, Ronald Reagan is seen as someone who bullied women, the poor, minorities, and the LGBT community. Reagan, however, was no cold-hearted oppressor. Many of his policies actually benefited marginalized groups, but this fact is often overshadowed by stubborn attempts to dress him up as someone who actively stood against progress. I will debunk four of the biggest myths here.
MYTH: Ronald Reagan hurt the poor to benefit his rich cronies.
Ronald Reagan is perhaps best known and portrayed on college campuses as a fiscal conservative representing the interests of the rich and robbing the poor of opportunity—a reverse Robin Hood. Putting aside his growth-focused fiscal policies, which helped all classes of Americans, Reagan helped the poor in particular through his drastic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Reagan believed in lower taxes for all, and as such, made sure that the poor also had their tax rates lowered.
Reagan expanded the EITC in a way that allowed many low-income Americans to pay negative income taxes. In practice, this means that the most impoverished would receive a wealth transfer from the government rather than paying taxes. The EITC was targeted at low-income households with children, and, taking into account that children in complete families perform better academically and socially, sought to encourage families—the social building blocks of America—to stay together, paving the way for a better life for the next generation of American youth. Reagan’s EITC expansion is a mere footnote in most history textbooks and online articles, but it illustrates that Reagan was not the cold-hearted, anti-poor capitalist that many liberals portray.
Verdict: Reagan gave the poor a tax cut and protected low-income family units with the EITC.
MYTH: Reagan was a racist.
The notion that Ronald Reagan was a racist is a misconception fueled by an obsessive focus on Reagan’s opposition to the civil rights bills of the 1960s, which Reagan saw less as protecting rights for minorities than as advancing a covert expansion of ineffectual big government through redundant acts. Even this opposition, however, preceded his presidency and reflected the fact that his views on civil rights were not yet fully developed. As president, Reagan implemented a policy agenda that produced significant economic advancement in minority communities across the country, particularly aiding minority-owned family businesses and the Black community.
During Reagan’s presidency, Black-owned businesses saw revenues grow by an annual average of 7.9 percent. Reagan could have easily targeted his policies at helping large corporations, which were largely owned by Whites at the time, instead of small, minority-owned businesses (85% of small businesses paid their taxes by personal rates during the Reagan era versus the corporate rate large corporations tend to pay), but chose to focus his policies on these pillars of minority communities. Reagan understood what the Radical Republicans a century earlier did not: Without economic empowerment, legal and political rights for minorities—even if backed by the letter of the law—mean little. Reagan produced this economic empowerment by lowering the obstacles to economic growth, which allowed businesses to grow and hire more people, thus injecting new life into struggling communities. During his presidency, Black employment increased 15 percent overall, and the proportion of Black managers grew by 30 percent. The new economic opportunities produced during the Reagan boom also reached the Black professional class, which expanded by 63 percent. These economic gains helped Blacks and other minorities gain a more equal footing in American society.
Barack Obama’s economic record for Black Americans has been far worse, even after the recovery from the Great Recession. Black employment, adjusted for seasonal labor, actually dropped by 2.4 percent over the course of his presidency, and Black participation in the food stamp program exploded by nearly 60 percent. Median Black incomes dropped over the eight years of Obama’s presidency, even including the economic recovery, while the Reagan years brought steady, strong increases in median Black earnings. When compared to Whites, Blacks did better economically in the Reagan years than the Obama years, the latter of which actually saw the racial wealth gap increase.
Verdict: Not racist; in fact, his economic policies greatly advanced the interests of minorities, particularly the Black community.
MYTH: Reagan’s policies reveal a poor record on women’s rights.
Further, liberals claim Reagan was a sexist who had a bad record on women’s rights. This assertion is simply untrue—even more ludicrous than the previous claims. Besides appointing the first female Supreme Court Justice—Sandra Day O’Connor—Reagan also established the “Fifty States Project” during his presidency. This program identified and worked to eliminate state laws and statutes that discriminated against women. His anti-drug policy, though much maligned today, did much to help women struggling to take care of their families while their partners abused drugs. Reagan’s era also was marked by economic empowerment of the American people, regardless of race, religion, and sex. Female participation rate in the workforce grew during the eight years of Reagan’s tenure, allowing for greater rates of female independence.
Verdict: Not sexist
MYTH: Reagan was anti-gay and refused to fund AIDS research.
In regard to the LGBT community, Reagan is often derided as a staunch anti-gay activist who refused to fund AIDS research—but once again, his record proves otherwise. First clinically observed in the first year of Reagan’s presidency, AIDS was a rather obscure disease. Most newly-discovered diseases receive poor funding because of their rarity and and a subsequent lack of incentive to develop treatments and cures. But despite the novelty of AIDS, the Reagan administration provided significant funding for AIDS research, which doubled or tripled during every year of Reagan’s presidency, with $5 billion appropriated for AIDS research by the end of his presidency in 1989.
When it came to LGBT rights, Reagan was surprisingly progressive for his era. As recently as 2004, modern political figures like Barack Obama were denouncing gay marriage. Even before he became president and jumpstarted AIDS research, as California governor Reagan came out against Proposition 6—a ballot measure which would have barred LGBT people from teaching in the public school system. Opposing Proposition 6 was a risk to his political career, as supporting homosexual people was still politically dangerous at the time. Reagan’s courageous activism turned out to be instrumental to Proposition 6’s defeat.
In an era when homosexuality was commonly seen as a disease, Reagan proposed a strikingly modern view on sexuality in the course of his opposition to Proposition 6, writing that “homosexuality is not a contagious disease like measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”
Verdict: Not homophobic
Reagan was no oppressor; indeed, he unlocked opportunity for millions of Americans to pursue their dreams and earn a new place in society. And although it is too early to tell, with the presidency of Donald Trump, the Republican Party may just be shifting back to what Reagan envisioned. Trump’s proposed tax cuts and simplification of the tax code are reminiscent to Reagan’s highly successful economic measures, and a simplified tax code levels the playing field, helping the poor and middle class by making the tax code intelligible to them and lessening the need to spend money on CPAs and tax preparers during tax season.
Trump’s promises to bring new opportunity to inner-city neighborhoods, to lower taxes on small businesses—many of which are minority owned—and to give the choice of schooling to poor minority students trapped in failing public schools revives much of Reagan’s policy of economic empowerment. Trump has been the most LGBT-friendly Republican president, and his efforts to spearhead women-owned businesses have all proved that he may just be taking the same path Reagan did thirty years ago. To the liberal college students throughout the nation, maybe it is time to reexamine Reagan in a new light—one that takes into account his contribution to progress, not just his flaws.
Image: Wikipedia Commons
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