Why Americans Hate Welfare

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An illustrative 1996 cover story urges Bill Clinton to sign welfare reform in The New Republic.
An illustrative 1996 cover story from The New Republic urges Bill Clinton to sign welfare reform.

Whatever his faults, Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly a gifted communicator. His ideological preferences often came wrapped in memorable anecdotes.

Reagan justified his antipathy for the social safety net — and capitalized on the racial anxieties held by many white voters — by invoking the infamous, Cadillac-driving welfare queen and the “strapping young buck” who lived large on T-bone steaks purchased with food stamps. Reagan didn’t actually coin the term “welfare queen” — that was the Chicago Tribune. (He did in fact use the term “young buck” — derogatory slang for a young black man.) Reagan merely took advantage of an existing media frenzy surrounding the case of a Chicago woman named Linda Taylor who may have been guilty of murder as well as welfare fraud on a massive scale, according to Josh Levin’s profile on the real “welfare queen.”

By that time — well over a decade since Lyndon Johnson had launched his “War on Poverty” — Americans’ attitudes toward welfare had changed. Those changing attitudes were playing a major role in the realignment of our two major parties, and led to the rise of what Thomas Frank described as “backlash conservatism.” Put simply: many Americans came to hate welfare, and saw it as representing the worst aspects of liberalism and the social safety net.

Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University, studied decades of polling data and media reports to gain a better understanding of why we tend to hold welfare in disdain. His 1999 book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, is considered a seminal work on the topic.

Gilens shared some of his key findings with BillMoyers.com. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Joshua Holland: You went back and looked at decades of public opinion about the social safety net. Did you find that Americans are inherently hostile to public programs that help the poor?

Gilens: No. On the contrary, what 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.

Holland: So why is welfare an exception? What is it about welfare that they hate?

Gilens: Let’s first define what we mean by “welfare.” The way I use it in my work corresponds with how the public would use it — it refers to cash assistance, or something very close to cash assistance, that’s given to people who are working age and unemployed.

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.

Holland: Is that idea based on older stereotypes of blacks, and, to a lesser extent, other people of color, being inherently lazy?

Gilens: It is certainly tied up with those stereotypes. And you’re right in characterizing them as older, in the sense that they’ve been a part of American culture for centuries. They’ve been used to defend slavery in the antebellum period and were prominent during the Civil Rights era. But it’s not at all clear that they have gone away. So they’re not old in that sense.

Racial attitudes among non-blacks towards African-Americans have improved in a variety of ways, so I don’t want to say there hasn’t been progress. But nevertheless, those stereotypes and perceptions do persist.

Holland: You discovered that there was a shift in public attitudes about welfare, and other public assistance programs, beginning in the 1960s. To what do you ascribe that?

Gilens: There has always been a certain degree of cynicism and concern about welfare benefits — about government programs — especially those that provide cash to the poor. Even in the 1930s, when FDR was initiating the first federal relief and assistance programs, he characterized welfare as a narcotic and a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. So it’s not a new idea in that sense, but it did take on a new form in the 1960s, as poverty in this country became racialized. And we see very clearly, in the historical work that I did, how the perceptions of the poor and the portrayal of the poor in the news media shifted around the mid-1960s, at the same time that the discourse around poverty became more negative.

Holland: How is poverty portrayed in the news media and on television — and how has that played into the story?

Gilens: During the early part of the Johnson administration’s 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.

Holland: So people of color were the visuals of choice for these stories, disproportionate to their actual participation in these programs. And what about stories of poor people who were in need of other forms of assistance, like health care? How did the media tend to portray them?

Gilens: Much more positively, as you might expect. And also — and this is the key result from that analysis — also much more white. So that the more sympathetic stories about subgroups of the poor who were perceived as being deserving — those who need medical care, people who were benefiting from food programs and job training programs and things that are seen more positively, tended to use images of white participants, rather than blacks. And when you turned toward the more negatively viewed subgroups of the poor, especially welfare recipients, there were many more images of blacks.

And I should also say that, of course, the racial composition of different subgroups of the poor does differ somewhat, so that was one of the things I had to take into account. But even accounting for those actual differences, the portrayals were exaggerated along these same patterns of negative groups. And in different periods over the decades that I studied, the poor people were portrayed more negatively when you started seeing larger proportions of poor African-Americans.

Holland: During the same period, we saw the rise of “dog whistle politics.” When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson famously said that Democrats had lost the South for a generation, but it turned out he was wrong — they lost the South for longer than that. And then in 1968, Nixon effectively employed the Southern strategy to win the White House. Do you think that kind of political rhetoric influenced the way the media portrayed poverty in America?

Gilens: It would be hard to imagine that it did not. I don’t have any direct evidence one way or another, but in general the media — especially the elite national media like the weekly newsmagazines and network television news I focused on — the people working in those organizations tend to be quite liberal, and yet, the portrayal of poverty that I documented in this work was extremely unflattering, to say the least, toward African-Americans.

I don’t think that it was a matter of ill will or intent that led to those kinds of representations and misrepresentations, I think it was part of sort of the broader culture, part of which is the political discourse of the time.

Holland: Bill Clinton was proud to announce that he had ended welfare as we know it. The current iteration of the program, which is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, has strong work requirements attached to it for most recipients — with a few exceptions. Has the public’s view of the program changed with the program itself?

Gilens: It’s a good question and I’m not completely sure of the answer. What I do know is that the media portrayals of poor people and of welfare recipients did not shift dramatically around the time of the welfare reforms in the mid-1990s. The 1996 reforms that Clinton signed into law didn’t seem to have any dramatic impact on how the public understood the poor.

Holland: I’ve noticed that the notion of dependency on the government has expanded, especially among political conservatives. One can understand how with welfare — with people getting a check from the government — you can make an argument that it creates dependency. But the idea of dependency has been used against all sorts of programs, even subsidized student loans. Is that an intentional political gambit?

Gilens: It’s certainly an intentional political gambit. I think it taps into a deep and powerful strain of American culture — one that maybe ebbs and flows over time — the belief in rugged individualism. That has always been one element of what is a pair of ambivalent components. Americans are attracted to that notion that people should be responsible for themselves, turn to government as a last resort, and that voluntary assistance and communities are preferable to government when individuals need help. But that aspect of our political culture is balanced by the recognition that people often face circumstances that are beyond their control — that have difficulties for which they’re not to blame — and that other forms of support are not always going to be available.

So I think these two elements are in tension, and they’ve been in tension for centuries, and they probably will continue to be in tension. And it’s not just in America, either. But there’s sort of an ascendency, at least among a subset of the public in recent decades, to emphasize that sort of rugged individualist anti-governmental element of those two aspects of our culture.

Holland: I’ve also noticed that politicians and conservative writers have been calling all sorts of public programs that help the poor “welfare.” Republican congressional staffers put out a report last year claiming that the US government spends an enormous amount on welfare. But then, when you looked at what they included, it had all sorts of things like disaster relief for low-income areas or supplemental spending for low-income schools.

Anyway, we’re right around the fifth anniversary of the tea party movement. Having researched these public perceptions, do you have any thoughts on how it ascended so quickly, and whether this ties in with your work? There has been a debate about whether or not members of the tea party movement hold more racial resentment than other citizens.

Gilens: There’s no question that part of the tea party movement — part of the backlash against President Obama — does have a racial component. But having said that, it doesn’t mean that all tea party members are motivated by racial animosity, or even that most tea party members are. As with many people who don’t belong to the tea party, many tea party members do hold this idea of blacks being lazy and irresponsible. But it is just one aspect of their motivation.

I think the other thing that’s important to note about the tea party is that it didn’t spring to life out of some primordial response to what was going on politically — there are powerful players who assisted, for their own purposes, in making the tea party as viable as it has been, and we’re still seeing the effects.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Janet Innes-Kirkwood

    Interesting. I am sort of trying to see and feel where all of these historical threads come from. I think much of it is out of the rise of Capitalism and that of extractive colonialism and the rise of mass media where it all meets in often manipulated form inside of people’s heads and comes out in their visions of reality they create. Welcome to reality construction.

  • http://www.mcduffee-associates.us Unka_George

    A good article. I suggest some other underlying factors:

    (1) Continuous, intense and pervasive indoctrination, such that the majority of people frequently act against their own long-term best self interests, both as individuals and as a class.

    (2) Subliminal realization by those not [yet] on welfare, particularly at the bottom of the food chain, their belief in hard work and “boot strap” improvement has largely been a delusion, carefully nurtured by those that benefit from their labor, resulting in rage which is directed toward those unfortunates on welfare.

    (3) The realization and denial by the majority that the horse/sparrow, or if you prefer “trickle down,” economic model has again failed. As in most instances of pathological denial considerable feelings of angst, incongruence and dissonance are generated, and as a psychological protective measure these are masked by projection on and animosity toward those on welfare. A further factor is that many people subconsciously realize they are one paycheck away from being forced onto welfare, and that the number of jobs available to them and the wages are continually shrinking. Again, their anger is directed towards those on welfare and not those responsible for the continuing job loss.

  • http://www.mcduffee-associates.us Unka_George

    A good observation, however the problem(s) seems to go much deeper. It appears we are in the midst of a profound socioeconomic shift to a new organization/structure which is still emerging, but which has been identified as post-industrial and post-capitalistic. As this new structure is still [rapidly] evolving no one can tell what will result, but the degree and speed of change resulting from “Globalization,” computerization/automation, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, etc. are resulting in stress/strain comparable to that which resulted in the first industrial revolution, or even the displacement of manorialism by mercantilism/nationalism. The speed of the current shift, in many cases within a single generation, means the stresses are concentrated or focused in a much shorter time span and are therefor are more deeply felt.

  • Anonymous

    Americans love welfare as long as it is directed toward wealthy corporationx and their executives.

  • Janet Innes-Kirkwood

    Maybe but I remember when very young people that I have known from all over the world told me their deeply held pain – some of it beyond imagining. There is hardly a modern empire East or West that I have not known someone from. What was it that Buddha said? All life is suffering. It is just our relationship to it that changes. Without all the whistles and bells we are all just human. It is our condition.

  • NotARedneck

    If Americans want to reduce the need for welfare, they need to move the jobs closer to where those wanting to work, currently live. Expecting the poor to move into expensive neighbourhoods where the wealthy and upper middle class live is a pipe dream, even though the right wing criminal trash are always saying that this is what is needed. (of course, such imbeciles cannot think such talking points through to their logical conclusion!)

    Since decent public transportation is not the priority that sports stadiums are for most cities, don’t expect those in poverty to actually commute either.

    No. The FACT is, nearly all US cities are bubbles with the few economic opportunities are on the edge. The poor, especially those of colour, are living in apartment buildings that are not even the size of a pea on the horizon.

  • NotARedneck

    People, but especially racist right wing imbeciles, hate to have their illusions shattered and will lash out at the easiest target. In the past, things improved because people, even the totally uneducated, were smart enough to bring out the guillotine and other methods to improve society. For many decades thereafter, this had a largely positive effect on those who had the power and could make positive change.

    However, the advent of TV made it possible to control the least intelligent. It is actually a case of de-evolution as society put most of its efforts into helping racist right wing southern and rural trash grab the most from the post WWII economic boom. They never valued education and are suckers for the lies of the wealthy and their hired hands.

  • ORAXX

    Keeping the public’s attention focused on the small crimes of the poor, tends to be a thing that makes life easier for the Wall Street pirates who nearly destroyed the American economy. It isn’t an accident. People can get their heads about a mother on food stamps buying their wretched, undeserving child, a candy bar. It’s much tougher to grasp the crimes of the people whose greed brought the banking system to the brink of collapse.

  • Anonymous

    I think it is indelibly linked to race slavery as he points out, and perpetuation of the caste system of England. Native Americans and Hispanics are also targets of this prejudice. As most groups of people we love to split up the population into classes and justify the poor as intrinsic weaknesses and flaws. Sad but true.

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  • John Kessler

    Context plays an important role when using the term. When used by the President to refer to a healthy young black guy getting some sort of government handout it left a strong and powerful image in the minds of the people. It left the strong impression that welfare mainly benefited lazy people who didn’t deserve or need it. That impression was used to justify cutting benefits to all, including a majority who truly do need and deserve them.

    Your use of the term may well have been race blind, or at least not directed towards young black men.

  • Lynda Swanson

    I am shocked at times that I even belong to the same species as some of the folks that have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in order to catch the few welfare cheats. Do they not realize, I mean really realize what happens to people when they have NO food or shelter? To me, they are giving a nod to death to come and get them. A heartless apathy has taken hold that is truly frightening.

  • http://destroyideas.blogspot.com destroyideas

    Would you be surprised that terms used in one region have different meanings in another? “Young Buck” in the South was certainly a racial term.

  • David Orozco

    Any country that allows the outsourcing of 20 million jobs,gives corporations and Wall Street trillions in subsides, bailouts and tax breaks, allows CEOs to make 1000s of times the average worker’s salary, uses racism as a catalyst to get their way and then is so evil to blame it all on the poor! Should have all their leaders swinging from telephone poles with a sign pinned on their chests that reads…”Enemies of the People! and the fools who fell for this flim-flam should be made to bury them.

  • Anonymous

    Many people who have NO food or shelter go on to commit crimes, and go to private prisons — and taxpayers get stuck paying for prisoners’ food and shelter anyway.

  • Anonymous

    but prisons put profits in corporate pockets. a much better system than welfare.

  • Anonymous

    it stems from a belief that black people should work for nothing and be slaves. we used to have slaves, now those people are a pesky nuisance and we have to do something about them, we dont really have any jobs anymore, so what to do?. lazy and irresponsible they are. why dont they get a job, they say, well…why dont you bring back GM, US Steel, Hill Refrigeration, Circle F industries, or start new industries, modernize our infrastructure?????and on and on until the break of dawn. it was Clinton and Reagan who let all our jobs go overseas and let corporations send their money overseas instead of reinvesting in America, then have the nerve to call the working poor lazy.

  • David Orozco

    Thats called warehousing human beings…

  • Anonymous

    This belief should be questioned and confronted more often: “I don’t think that it was a matter of ill will or intent that led to those kinds of representations and misrepresentations, I think it was part of sort of the broader culture, part of which is the political discourse of the time.” Particularly because it’s effect is widespread and life altering.

  • Anonymous

    Just to be on the record, when I am on SNAP, I buy New York Strip.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the media, which was liberal at the time, tried to raise sympathy for African Americans by using them almost exclusively in portrayals of poverty. If they did, it had the unintended consequence of making conservatives resent welfare even more.

  • Carolyn Yu

    Americans hate welfare cause no matter how much we give them, they want more!

    So, not only do we have to give these people welfare checks, EBT cards, free housing, free tuition, free transportation, etc., they now want higher salaries? Good grief! I have student loans I pay back ($350/month), high rent costs ($1700/month), $350/month health insurance (from Aetna), $26/month car insurance (thank god for Insurance Panda), $400/month for food+drink, gas/tolls/parking ($150/month), and I work 60 hours a week. If anyone should be complaining, it should be me.

    Bring on the robots!

  • The Mouse

    I can understand though the resentment towards Welfare, as someone who actually grew up on it. My entire family felt entitled and ended up just being irresponsible with their money (instead of saving it) and expecting more to come in from govt. They even blamed govt. or “Whitey” and claimed “racism” when their benefits were threatened to be cut off or lowered. I was the only one who decided to go to college and make something of myself. Now that I am making good money and single, I am being taxed to death; which is not fair… so that others can just lay around and collect benefits. Yes, there are some who truly need it (disabled, elderly, etc) but I can attest that many in my old neighborhood, keep having babies out of wedlock (all before the age of 25) yet they keep not blaming themselves for their behavior but the usual suspects: Whitey, those insensitive “racist” Republicans, and Govt.

    Though I tend to vote liberal, I do sympathize now with conservative ideals of “personal responsibility”, and rugged individualism. It’s frustrating to see men and women in my old neighborhood just keep having babies they can’t afford instead of having their noses in books (like I did). And I see these goons hanging out on the street corners; most likely getting every benefit imaginable, yet not working retail (because it is beneath them) or taking low paying jobs. They’d rather be jobless and impregnating women. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has to be addressed by the Sharptons of the world. Only Bill Cosby has the guts to and gets flak for it. When “Whitey” brings it up, it’s racism. If I bring it up, I am a self-hating Uncle Tom. Go figure.

  • The Mouse

    I can understand though the resentment towards Welfare, as someone who actually grew up on it. My entire family felt entitled and ended up just being irresponsible with their money (instead of saving it) and expecting more to come in from govt. They even blamed govt. or “Whitey” and claimed “racism” when their benefits were threatened to be cut off or lowered. I was the only one who decided to go to college and make something of myself. Now that I am making good money and single, I am being taxed to death; which is not fair… so that others can just lay around and collect benefits. Yes, there are some who truly need it (disabled, elderly, etc) but I can attest that many in my old neighborhood, keep having babies out of wedlock (all before the age of 25) yet they keep not blaming themselves for their behavior but the usual suspects: Whitey, those insensitive “racist” Republicans, and Govt.

    Though I tend to vote liberal, I do sympathize now with conservative ideals of “personal responsibility”, and rugged individualism. It’s frustrating to see men and women in my old neighborhood just keep having babies they can’t afford instead of having their noses in books (like I did). And I see these goons hanging out on the street corners; most likely getting every benefit imaginable, yet not working retail (because it is beneath them) or taking low paying jobs. They’d rather be jobless and impregnating women. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has to be addressed by the Sharptons of the world. Only Bill Cosby has the guts to and gets flack for it. When when “Whitey” brings it up, it’s racism. If I bring it up, I am a self-hating Uncle Tom. Go figure.

  • Being human

    It’s so sad how clueless Americans really are about what you just pointed out. I’ve debated a couple of times with people on Facebook about foodstamps, and they think they’re all just lazy people. One person I debated with was nicer, but she seems to have the perception that a lot of people committed fraud with the program. Then I’ve seen people whining about how Mcdonalds employees want $15 dollars an hour.

    It’s amazing how people complain about the poor wanting a few more bucks, when the top one percent are the ones who are actually committing the fraud. They ignore how the one percent ships jobs oversees, dodges taxes, and continues to see their profits soar. They hate it when poor people want to make a few more bucks, but turn the other cheek when the rich are dodging taxes in order to make a larger profit. They don’t even realize that the Bush tax cuts are a huge reason that we got into the recession in the first place, yet they continue to blame the poor.