Martin Gilens, professor of political science, has studied the history of perceptions of welfare and in an interview makes some interesting observations about the role that race and media framing plays in current attitudes.
[W]hat I found was that Americans do hate welfare, but that welfare really is an exception, rather than the rule, in terms of the public’s attitudes towards anti-poverty policy.
We have a lot of programs that provide other kinds of benefits to the poor and we have other kinds of programs that provide cash assistance to people who are not of working age — the disabled, children and so on.
But welfare is unique in that it provides a substitute for work. It provides cash assistance for able-bodied working age adults, and that leads to the perception that it’s easily abused and that large numbers of people who are receiving welfare don’t really need it. And that is what I found to be the fundamental basis for the public’s cynicism and objection. And, tied up with that, as the title of my book suggests, is the exaggerated perception about the extent to which welfare recipients are black.
During the early part of the Johnson administrations War on Poverty, it generally got pretty sympathetic coverage. If you look back at news accounts of poverty and the War on Poverty from the early ’60s up through about the end of 1964 or so, you’ll see generally positive stories about government efforts to help them. And those stories are overwhelmingly illustrated with images of poor white people.
But, starting around 1965, the discourse about the War on Poverty became much more negative, and that was for a few reasons, one of them being that programs that the administration had been promoting were now out in the field, and people, especially conservatives, were starting to take aim at them. And the media started to portray those programs much more negatively as being abused by people who didn’t really need them, as being inefficient and so on. And it’s really right at that time — and it’s a very dramatic shift in the media portrayal — that the imagery shifts from poor white people, positively portrayed, to poor black people, negatively portrayed.
As we see from this data put out by the department of commerce, among the 12,800,000 people on welfare, the percentage of people who are white is roughly the same as the percentage who are black, both around 40%. So while the raw numbers are about the same, since there five times as many white people as there are black, the percentage of the black the black community on welfare is five times that of the white community.
One other factor is that major media markets are in big cities where black welfare recipients are concentrated and thus more likely to be seen and reported upon by the local media. Many white welfare recipients may be widely dispersed in rural areas and, although the numbers are the same, remain largely invisible.
But it is also undoubtedly the case that those who want to eliminate all support for the poor have figured out that tapping into the latent prejudices and racism that undoubtedly still exists in large swathes of the American public is a good way to discredit the whole program.