How welfare became hated

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.


  1. Dunc says

    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.

    In the mid 60s you say? Well, I certainly can’t think of anything else going on in the political arena around that time which might explain this…

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve always supported welfare. However, the case against it is complicated, and probably impervious to statistics.

    Case in point: I teach in a community college, and many of my students over the years have come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And it is invariably from them that I have heard the strongest condemnation of welfare — as in “I know so-and-so who is on welfare, and she is so lazy!” I think the attitude is, “If I can get by without it, why can’t she?”

    I do think it’s an important program, but I don’t know how to sell it better.

  3. DsylexicHippo says

    @#1, Marcus:

    It really does seem like some people aren’t happy kicking someone else until they’re down.

    And then there are those fine people that are happy kicking someone especially when they’re down.

  4. Ollie Nanyes says

    Welfare statistics are tricky. If one measures “who is on welfare right now”, one gets a certain set of statistics. But on the other hand, if one measures “who has ever been on welfare over a given time period”, one gets a completely different set of statistics.

  5. Ollie Nanyes says

    The other thing: one can always find those who behave very irresponsibly (even if these cases are not representative):

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Here in Europe “welfare state” means a state where the people fare well, i.e. can support themselves and their families. Sweden is a welfare state and proud of it.

    The Americans seem to have an opposite meaning. When they accuse Sweden for being a welfare state, the Swedes are pretty baffled by it…

  7. Dunc says

    Here in the UK, we used to call it “social security”, which seems like a pretty good description.

  8. Jackson says

    Our debt and deficit have nothing to do with the poor, or because of Medicaid, or because of food stamps. The last time I checked because we are subsidizing major corporations that are paying their people minimum wage, one thing we could do to stop the need for social welfare programs is to simply raise the minimum wage. Reagan did and said it would cost jobs, it helped gain 500,000 jobs because of that one raise, so that theory of lost jobs is not clear or solid.
    One major Corporation in the U.S owns as much wealth “W” as the lower 38% of the rest of the country. The poor is not the place to look to save money, every penny spent on the poor gives back more than 1 dollar back to our economy as stimulus.
    This is the problem. It is easy to kick someone when they are down. It is hard to tax the rich, they own the Government. And that means we are headed to a Corporate Run Fascist State thanks to the Republican Party aided by apathetic Democratic voters.
    Get this stat….In the World, 85 people own as much wealth as the lower 3.5 billion lowest poor people in the world, and we want to kick the poor?
    That is just not stupid, it is down right immoral and the exact opposite of what every Scripture of any moral good tells its people to do. And it is common sense from a Humanist standpoint.
    This conversation of hurting the poor to get at those few whom abuse the system, well, lets look at Dick Cheney and see just how much money he has made from our Foreign wars we went to based on a lie

    Then we can have a conversation.

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