Why Do Americans Still Hate Welfare?

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As I explained in a post last month, the word “welfare” remains a charged one in the American lexicon. So in the throes of a prolonged recession — one that may challenge Congress and the incoming Obama administration to respond by tweaking the nation’s social welfare policies — it’s worthwhile asking: Why is this the case?

Since the mid-1960s, the term “welfare” has undoubtedly been fraught with racial innuendo. Yet at its core, the general public’s aversion to anything that smacks of some form of unlimited public assistance that is not tied to work is and has always been rooted in the American Dream.

By the American Dream, I mean that, in this country, notions of individual responsibility and the freedom of upward mobility are seen as sacred truths.

“America,” G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, once wrote, “is a nation with the soul of a church.”

And indeed, people in the United States believe –- with a religious fervor –- that this is a country in which if you work hard, you can get ahead. As Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, writes in his book “One Nation, After All,” Americans believe that the government should be “a temporary, limited, but always reliable source of support when hard times hit, as most Americans understand they will.”

That’s a large part of why experts say that Americans –- going back as far as Colonial times, when Elizabethan poor laws were in vogue — have never favored unlimited government handouts that are not contingent upon work.

The Great Depression is a prime example. Various polls and historical accounts taken during that time period indicate that the American people largely favored government public works programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Direct relief, on the other hand, was unpopular throughout roughly that same time period. It was also highly limited. Only children, the blind and those over 65 could receive it.

In his book “America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century,” James Patterson, a professor of history emeritus at Brown University, writes that “the image of the poor person in the 1930s was the agrarian farmer, down on his luck, but not complaining.” Think of Tom Joad, the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Starting in the mid-1960s, however, that image began to change: poverty –- especially welfare — became seen by many as largely an African-American phenomenon. It was also during this decade that the word “welfare,” which previously did not have a negative connotation, became “a political epithet,” according to Sanford Schram, a professor of social policy at Bryn Mawr College.

The reason, experts say, has to do with various social changes that occurred during that decade. They included: a dramatic increase in the number of women and children receiving public assistance, the rise of the notion that people had the right to such assistance, an increase in children born out of wedlock and the presence of large numbers of African-Americans in major northern cities, many of whom had migrated from the South during the 1940s and 1950s.

In the 1960s, policy makers and the media began to focus on poverty and anti-poverty measures for the first time since the Great Depression. But in the process, the latter appears to have offered a distorted image of the American poor. In his book, “Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy,” Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, demonstrates that from 1965 to 1992, the images used by various media outlets dramatically overrepresented the number of African-Americans among the poor, especially in stories involving welfare fraud.

The result, Professor Gilens says, was that both blacks and whites wrongly perceived that the majority of welfare recipients were African-American. Professor Gilens also finds a strong correlation between those who wanted to cut welfare spending and those who felt that African-Americans were less committed to the work ethic than their white counterparts.

That misplaced assumption, I think, does not stem from a belief in any congenital differences between African-Americans and others. Rather it is an implied corollary of the American Dream: the notion that since anyone in this country can make it, those who do not must not be trying.

The so-called welfare reform act of 1996 was –- at least in part — intended to align American welfare policies better with American values. And it did. Aid is now contingent upon work, and the government no longer provides indefinite assistance.

Nevertheless, “welfare” remains a catch-all pejorative, a word that continues to connote indolence and idle. If values -– and not simply racism — explain why Americans hate the word “welfare,” how can this be?

The answer seems to be, at least in part, a lack of information.

Indeed, a 2001 poll indicates that only half of the people surveyed knew that federal welfare laws had changed.

That lack of awareness is something the Obama administration should keep in mind as it considers ways to help low-income Americans.

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