Republicans, Race, And The Reason Attacking Welfare Will Backfire


From Reagan’s broadside against “welfare queens” to Romney’s accusation that Obama was “gutting” welfare reform, attacking “government handouts” to the poor has been an essentially permanent staple of modern Republican rhetoric and policymaking. Even some supposedly reform-minded Republicans, like the boutiquely in-vogue “libertarian populists,” want to slash federal spending on the poor: just this Tuesday, one of the trend’s leading advocates decried how lazy government support was making some Americans.

For decades, this argument helped mobilize white support for Republicans by preying on the anti-black racial code deeply embedded in anti-welfare public sentiment. But that time is coming to a close. If Republicans want to make a u-turn away from the electoral dead end they’re heading towards, they’re going to have to start by making their peace with welfare and the Americans who rely on it.


Even though blacks and whites make up a roughly equal percentage of welfare recipients, welfare has been a racialized issue for decades. In his 1999 book Why Americans Hate Welfare, political scientist Martin Gilens examined a paradox: Americans generally supported the idea of government helping at the poor, but seemed to hate welfare — the program that made that idea into a reality — in high numbers. Sorting through various data streams, Gilens found the key explanation to be that white Americans believed welfare money was supporting lazy black people, not the deserving poor: racialized views about welfare recipients were “central elements in generating public opposition to welfare.” The reason for this embedding, Gilens’ work suggested, was media representation. Post-1950 newspapers, magazines, and television shows systematically portrayed poor people as black people, linking welfare and blacks in the white American imagination. Thus, when Newt Gingrich called Obama a “food stamp president” in the last election cycle, he didn’t need to say “black” for the racial punch to land.

Neither African-Americans nor Hispanics share the widespread white animosity towards welfare. That African-Americans broadly support the social safety net is well-known, but recent polling finds similarly wide support for a more expansive, activist government role in the economy among Latinos as well. This fits with older research suggesting black and Latino attitudes toward welfare are reasonably similar, each distinct from white antipathy.

These are, of course, the two main demographic groups Republicans need to win over if they wish to remain competitive. Whites alone cannot make up the Republican electoral deficit, a point that even Sean Trende, the demographer most sympathetic to the idea that a revival among certain whites could help the GOP, avows. Indeed, it seems like even white people nowadays don’t want to be in a whites-only party, which means that Republicans looking to improve the party’s standing among white millenials in particular will need to make an effort to bring blacks and Latinos (as well as Asians) into the GOP fold.

Welfare policy isn’t just an area where the GOP and these growing electoral demographics disagree: there’s evidence that Republican arguments on welfare actively convince people the party doesn’t care about minorities and the poor. Last summer, when Romney those “gutting welfare” ads, Brown University’s Michael Tesler examined a sample of folks who had seen the ad. He found that people who scored the lowest on “racial resentment” tests — a particular measure of problematic attitudes toward blacks — who watched Romney’s ad were significantly less likely to believe his policies overall would help blacks, the middle class, or the poor. That’s of course the result of the study of one ad, but, as Tesler notes, it’s in line with a deep body of political science research suggesting that Americans interpret politics in part through racial code.


So assuming other Republican attacks on welfare are similar enough to Romney’s ad, Tesler’s research suggests that Republican anti-welfare pushes cement precisely the racial perceptions the GOP needs to shake if it wants to win over minority and young voters. That shouldn’t be surprising; the racial valence of welfare isn’t exactly a secret. Yet Republicans refuse to acknowledge the issue: “There is racial politics at work here,” National Review’s editors wrote of Romney’s ad, “and, as usual, it is a Democratic initiative.” The problem, you see, wasn’t that Romney was playing on stereotypes of blacks as shiftless moochers, but that “Democrats know that a voter dependent on the government — whether a welfare recipient or an EPA employee — is a Democratic voter.”

That’s a consequence of broader conservative attitudes toward race and racism. Samuel Goldman, a sharp writer at The American Conservative, argued recently that conservatives tend to see racism as “conscious malice independent of any non-racial considerations,” ignoring the ways in racial inequalities can perpetuate themselves systemically. The same inappropriate colorblindness screens out an understanding of the way in which attacks on welfare and welfare recipients that don’t explicitly mention black people end up indicting them anyway. If doesn’t explicitly say anything offensive about minorities, the thinking goes, it can’t be racist.

On the off-chance that Republicans shake the colorblind approach to race, then welfare policy would be a good place to road-test an alternative. But there’s an ironic reason that might not happen. Harvard sociologist Cybelle Fox found that here’s a direct tradeoff between white exposure to Latinos and support for welfare: whites in highly Latino states tend to oppose welfare at higher rates, not because they think Latinos are lazy, but because they think they’re not. More precisely, Fox’s research suggests that anti-welfare whites compare their experience with Latino immigrants to their stereotypes of lazy black welfare recipients and find the latter wanting.

If Fox is right, then a positive experience with a more diverse America will push the GOP’s white base even further from supporting a policy change — making peace with welfare — that they party needs to thrive given the new demographic realities.