Why Does White America Object to the Welfare Program?

Ever since the arrival of our nation as a welfare state ,there has been immense controversy over antipoverty programs of both a universal and means-tested nature. Up until the last 20 years, issues of

racism rarely were accounted for, as the motivating factors of growing white opposition to welfare programs, particularly the ADC (later renamed the AFDC). These elements of racism were first introduced by the compromises made in Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935, and have continued to be reinforced by the overwhelming financial dependence that many African-Americans have had to succumb to. With the differences between America’s white and black poor significantly increasing it seems as though only a dramatic reformation in the white American mentality will save the forever struggling African-American.

The American welfare state was primarily initiated as a result of Roosevelt’s aspirations to rescue the American people from the Great Depression with the passing of the Social Security Act of 1935. Unfortunately, this bill also gave birth to the beginning of a racially stratified system of welfare that has left a negative imprint on the existing system of today. This resulted from several compromises that Roosevelt gave into, in order to push the act through Congress. Most of the pressure Roosevelt felt to change the bill came from the white South and the workers of the North leading to new guidelines that set forth a racial element within welfare.

The first amendment to the act excluded any statements that “directly outlawed racial discrimination.” (Neubeck and Cazenave 2001) Such legislation that was removed included the illegalization of lynching and poll taxes. (Quadagno 1994) A clause requiring “a reasonable subsistence compatible with health and decency” for the programs was also withdrawn from the bill. (Gilens 1999) For if this phrase had remained, it most likely would have increased wages in the southern states by eliminating severe levels of financial hardship that were presently entrapping blacks in “extremely low-paid agricultural jobs.“ (Neubeck and Cazenave 2001) In addition, Roosevelt also agreed to support the exclusion of domestic servants and agricultural workers from old age insurance and also unemployment benefits by not including any federal standards for the program. (Quadagno 1994) In fact, one of the only programs most blacks were eligible for, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), was established in a manner that allowed individual states to restrict the amount of African-Americans allowed on relief. (Gilens 1999)

In the mid 1930s, even though black children comprised 50 percent of all children applicable for ADC in North Carolina, only under 25 percent of children accepted for aid were black. (Neubeck and Cazenave 2001) In Arkansas and South Carolina, black children averaged about $4 a month per child in ADC relief payments while the national average amount per child was a significantly higher payment of $13 a month. (Gilens 1999) A quote as recorded in Race, Money, and the American Welfare State from an article in the September 10, 1938 Kansas City Call. It describes the economic situation of blacks at the time in regards to the Works Progress Administration (WPA):
“The United States has from the moment it gave the Negro employment, called him lazy and paid him less than white workers on the claim that only by keeping him ‘broke’ could he be made to work. Today it pays WPAs a wage above what the Negro was given his full time and best endeavor. The same public which accepts the WPA’s indifference and accounts for it on the ground that no better is to be expected for so little money, cannot help acquitting the underpaid Negro worker of being lazy.” (Brown 1999)

By 1939, 54.5 percent of white Americans were grossing less than $1000 a year, while an even more dramatic 89.2 percent of non-white Americans were earning less than $1000. Furthermore, 72.6 percent of non-whites were actually earning less than $600 a year as compared to only 33.8 percent of whites. (Lieberman 1998)

The repercussions of the Social Security Act of 1935 continued on through the 1940s. In the midst of rising out of the depression, in 1940 the “white labor force participation rate” rose while the “black labor force participation rate” continued to dramatically descend. In fact, the total rates for unemployment compensation and work relief were almost two and a half times greater for inner city African-American laborers than the rates of whites. (Brown 1999) The relentless prejudices of whites in the labor-market created ceilings for black men and black women ultimately restricting them from access to the majority of the programs created by social security leaving them to a few specific limited means-tested programs.

As a result, by the 1950s, most white Americans thought of welfare, particularly the ADC, as a program that primarily supported blacks.
“To the notion of indolent blacks lounging on relief was grafted an image of sexually promiscuous, greedy African-American women who produced children for their own profit at the expense of white taxpayers, an image that revived racist stereotypes dating from the period of slavery. (Brown 1999)

The racial stereotypes against welfare only seemed to strengthen (or at the very least only become replaced by new negative stereotypes) as the 1960s came and went. Ironically, though many thought with affirmative action, desegregation, and the elimination of inequality as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, racism would soon dissipate into the past, but surprisingly the consequences of the bias Social Security Act of 1935 still lingered.

By the 1960s, the social legislation that cornered blacks into economic dependence had been in effect for almost 30 years and as a result was now converted into the main catalyst in prolonging and evolving an ignorant characteristic from our past into one of our future as a result of feeling a lack of a significant “black contribution” to the American economy. After all, how could one honestly be surprised at the time with the resulting situation when a consistent increase in black families on ADC went from 14 percent of the entire caseload in 1939 to more than doubling up to 40 percent by only 1961? In addition, cities in the north with populations greater than 50,000 people possessed a ADC caseload with 85 percent of the families being African-American. (Brown 1999)

Martin Gilens, a well-known analyst of welfare opposition, writes “…through 1964, poor people were portrayed as predominantly white. But starting in 1965 the complexion of poor turned decisively darker.” (Neubeck and Cazenave 2001) Though black families were on the rise in the ADC caseloads of states during up through the ‘60s, the actual increase of the percentage of the poor that were black was only a mere 3 percent (from 27 percent to 30 percent). Although three out of ten African-Americans are poor compared to one in ten whites, blacks only make up a minority of the population and therefore a smaller overall percentage of the poor. Yet, the actual racial composition of the poor that people locally come into contact with has no effect on their perception of America’s poverty class as a country. For example, citizens of South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming believe that African-Americans compose 47 percent of America’s entire population, while of the poor while only a minuscule 1 percent of their state’s poverty class is actually black. (Gilens 1999)

So, why the misrepresentation from what one actually personally witnesses and experiences to some racial fantasy of the poor being black? Perhaps an increase in the amount of blacks seen in the media in stories on poverty in the late 1960s more than twice the amount seen reported in the early 1960s can help explain for the misconception. In a study Gilens conducted on blacks pictured in newsmagazines of the 1950 through 1992, he discovers that between U.S. News and World Report, Time, and Newsweek an average of 53.4 percent of the people pictures in portrayals of poverty were black while the national average percentage of poor blacks in America was only 29.3 percent. (Gilens 1999) Could this account for the racial misconstrued perspective of the poor?

Some would argue that racism, while still existent, has been on the fall ever since the Civil Rights Movement, and has dramatically continued to do so therefore not accurately correlating to the increasing false pretenses that white America has fallen to about the majority of the country’s poor. It is true, that for the most part the conception that blacks are genetically inferior by nature adapted in the times of slavery has almost entirely disappeared, but new recent studies of “implicit stereotyping” point to the possibility of subconscious influence from racial stereotypes of African-Americans even upon white Americans who strictly disagree with such prejudices. (Gilens 1999) According to Patricia Devine, if a person who truly proclaims to not be racist is subjected to unconscious priming regarding negative African-American stereotypes, he/she is just as likely to reflect racial views through his/her replies just as much as someone who admittedly promotes prejudices. (Hurwitz and Peffley 1998) In addition, a drop in apparent racism can also result from the molding of societal values to reject the blatant delivery of racist views or attitudes. (Gilens 1999) One can draw the conclusion that since blacks are the persons being perceived to be benefiting the most from antipoverty policies and the ones who are most in need that opposition to these programs stems from racism.

However, there is the classic argument of economic self-interest, a belief that one will be more inclined to favor programs that one directly benefits from the most, and in contrast is least likely to favor programs that one directly benefits from the least. With this in mind, it would seem likely that, with a majority of whites being above the poverty level, whites would be least likely to support antipoverty legislation. Yet, Gilens reported a survey conducted in 1991 expressed that 80 percent of respondents that were white concurred that “when people can’t support themselves, the government should help by giving them enough money to meet their basic needs.” (Hurwitz and Peffley 1998) Another study showed that 69 percent of Americans did not agree that “the government should worry more about the problems of middle-class people, and less about the…poor” (Gilens 1999)

Jack Citrin and Donald Green found that economic self-interest had only a very small influence on the political views of Americans in a review they did of several surveys involving “self-interest effects.” They stated that just as many Americans who had private medical insurance were in favor of government health insurance as those without any medical insurance whatsoever. In a survey conducted by the Washington Post in 1995, programs including Medicaid, government funded housing, and free legal aid for the impoverished found just as much support from those who stood to gain the least (those above the poverty line) as those who poor Americans who would benefit the most. Yet, these same patrons of antipoverty means-tested programs like the ones just previously suggested are the main opponents welfare expressing motivations inspired by more something contrary to economic self-interest. (Gilens 1999)

Even more startling is the fact that the United States, a nation that promoted the democracy and equal opportunity the world knows today, has often been deemed as a “reluctant welfare state” due to being the second least of all the first world nations in its spending percentage of its Gross National Product on antipoverty programs. (Gilens 1999) How can a country that seems to show so much interest in the needs of others come up so short compared to the rest of the world? In the Race and Politics Survey of 1991 though, results reflected that while a lot of white Americans have come to reject many negative stereotypical traits of African-Americans (like the issue of black inferiority as mentioned earlier), there are still plenty who still possess racist views of blacks. The survey stated that between 33.3 percent and 50 percent of white Americans hold the belief that “most” Africa-Americans are “lazy” and “violent.” (Hurwitz and Peffley 1998)

In a seven-point scale survey within the General Social Surveys of 1990 and 1994, white respondents were asked to place African-Americans on the scale based on one end being “lazy” and the other being “hard working.” An undeniable racist view among white Americans was produced. Only 20 percent of respondents placed blacks on the “hard working” half of the scale, while 44 percent put African-Americans on the half which was “lazy.” In addition, 63 percent of those that perceived blacks to be “lazy” favored the cutting of welfare budgets. (Gilens 1999) Gilens also noted on another seven-point scale, only 13 percent of white American respondents placed African-Americans on the “self-supporting” side of a scale balanced by an opposite “prefer to live off welfare” side, while 74 percent placed themselves as “self-supporting.” (Hurwitz and Peffley 1998)

Even more interestingly, the Race and Politics survey of 1991 showed that white welfare support “hinges heavily on the beneficiary.” For 61.7 percent of whites are in favor of the same welfare programs for European immigrants that only 46.8 percent of whites are in support of for African-Americans — “a clear cut instance of a racially discriminatory double standard.” (Hurwitz and Peffley 1998) As a result further negative stereotypes have leaked into the image of welfare in America resulting in a series of welfare reforms that led to even more troubling racial differences. 56 percent of white Americans and less than 40 percent African-Americans were on the Ohio ADC rolls in 1994, but, by 1998, whites on welfare fell to 44 percent while black welfare enrollment rose to 51 percent.

In 1997, blacks made up 61.6 percent of welfare recipients in Illinois while whites only comprised 26.6 percent of those on welfare. 2 years later the percentage of welfare recipients who were black had ascended to 69.2 percent while the amount of whites receiving welfare continued to drop to 19.3 percent. Further evidence of the racist opposition to welfare can be deferred when comparing the 54 percent of African-Americans that were ejected from welfare due to rule violations to the 39 percent of whites that were also dismissed. The gaining opposition to welfare perfectly correlated with the dramatic drop in white recipients of welfare benefits culminating in 1996 with the extermination of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children social program which went from starting out in 1967 with 53 percent of its recipients being white to finishing its last days with only 36 percent receivers of welfare being white. (Neubeck and Cazenave 2001)

In fact, by 1995, as shown through a comparative study of several surveys conducted between 1994 and 1995, 66.6 percent of Americans believed that the majority of welfare recipients were abusing the system, and only 33.3 percent believed that those receiving welfare actually needed the help. (Gilens 1999)

No problem better exemplifies the racially divisive character of the American welfare state than AFDC. Conservatives attack AFDC for discouraging work and family formation and for rewarding laziness. Such comments are really subtly veiled messages about family structures and employment patterns among African-Americans.” (Quadagno 1994)

America’s opposition to welfare originates directly from its views of only one of the many welfare programs, the AFDC, and a group called the “underclass” coined by William Julius Wilson author of The Truly Disadvantaged.

The “underclass” is typically viewed as that small percentage of the poor that only exists within the inner-city limits. This prejudice view of the “underclass” is compiled of characteristics of “idleness, immortality, family decay, and crime” and is a view unrealistically associated with the majority of welfare (but really AFDC in all actuality) recipients leading Americans to ignorantly believe that welfare gives birth to an entirely new set of economic and social travesties. Wilson writes:
“The conditions of inner-city life are a consequence neither of government social policies nor of depraved cultural and behavioral norms but of larger economic and social forces. The globalizing economy; the decline of American industry and the rise of the service economy; the flight of the skilled middle-class — these are the forces that have led to mass black male joblessness in the inner-city, the proximate casual root of the ‘underclass.’” (Lieberman 1998)

Yet, even with the removal of the AFDC from the American welfare state, opposition for any welfare program remains high due to correlating to exceedingly low rates of employment still remaining among blacks as compared to white Americans.

In 2003, 57.1 percent of African-American women were employed, while only 51.7 percent of black males were employed, but a significant percentage more 75.7 percent of all white Americans were employed dramatically surpassing the ratio of employment among African-Americans. The number of black males with employment was a record low that hadn’t been seen since 1979. A study conducted by the Community Service Society of New York City found that just under 50 percent of blacks between the ages of 16 and 65 years old were unemployed for the entire year of 2003. (Lui, Robles, Leondar-Wright, Brewer, and Adamson 2006) The margin between white and black support for welfare continues to widen as well. In the 2004 National Election Study, it was discovered that 23 percent more African-Americans hold the belief that “jobs and a good standard of living should be guaranteed” along with an increase in spending on social programs than do today‘s white Americans. (Brooker and Schaefer 2006)

The attempt at the relief of African-American economic suffering has strengthened historical racism within American politics resulting in a general white American perception of African-Americans as the group ultimately responsible for their own demise failing to realize their own contribution to the very negativities they criticize within the lifestyles of those residents of inner-cities. Even more saddening, this ignorant misconception of American welfare and African-Americans restricts white Americans from witnessing the holistic benefits to the American economy and society that may result from helping the country’s poor.

Brooker, Russell, and Schaefer, Todd. Public Opinion in the 21st Century: Let the People Speak?. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
Brown, Michael K. Race, Money, and the American Welfare State. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Gilens, Martin. Why Americans Hate Welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Hurwitz, Jon, and Peffley, Mark. Perception and Prejudice: Race and Politics in t he United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Lieberman, Robert C. Shifting the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998
Lui, Meizhu, and Robles, Barbara, and Leondar-Wright, Betsy, and Brewer, Rose, and Adamson, Rebecca. The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S Racial Wealth Divide. New York: The New Press, 2006.
Neubeck, Kenneth, and Cazenave, Noel. Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Quadagno, Jill. The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.