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White Americans support welfare programs — but only for themselves: new research

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Donald Trump’s administration recently decided to give $12 billion to farmers hurt by the president’s trade war against the European Union, China and various other countries. These monies can be considered a form of welfare for white people in red state America who are among his most loyal supporters. Moreover, the racial disparity is made even clearer by the way that African-American and other nonwhite farmers have been victims of systemic discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2010, the USDA and the Justice Department reached a $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers over a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in USDA farm loan programs.

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Welfare for white Americans is nothing new. In many ways, the United States was built on white welfare.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, free land was given to European settlers as the intended result of genocide and ethnic cleansing against Native Americans. As part of this same racist project, the stolen labor and lives of black human property is estimated to have been worth trillions of dollars. In essence, black pain and black suffering was a de facto intergenerational welfare payment to White America, one that fueled the country’s rise to global power and created income and other life opportunities for white people, both native- born and immigrants.

African-Americans and other nonwhites were prohibited both by law and social convention from taking advantage of land grants and other opportunities made available by the Homestead Act and related 19th-century legislation, which were conservatively worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The American middle class (predominantly white by definition) was created after World War II by way of federal programs like the VA, the FHA home programs and the G.I. Bill. This example of white welfare was one of the largest wealth-creation and intergenerational wealth-transfer programs in history. Again, African-Americans and other nonwhites were, for the most part, denied access to those opportunities. Today’s extreme racial wealth gap is the most obvious result.

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What economists and other social scientists describe as “the submerged state” — government programs such as mortgage interest deductions, capital gains and other tax credits and cuts, and financial subsidies for entire industries — is another example of white welfare. Whites are disproportionately overrepresented as beneficiaries of the submerged state. Moreover, the submerged state is a central means through which the racial wealth gap is maintained in so-called “post racial” “colorblind” America.

There is a complication. New research by Robb Willer, professor of sociology at  Stanford University, and Rachel Wetts, a researcher at the University of California, demonstrates that despite all the ways that government provided welfare programs to help them, white Americans are willing to cut such programs if they believe that African-Americans and other nonwhites may benefit.

This dynamic is made worse when white Americans are made to feel that their place at the top of America’s social hierarchy is challenged. Lyndon Johnson’s insight has been proven true over and over: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

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A new academic article, “Privilege on the Precipice: Perceived Racial Status Threats Lead White Americans to Oppose Welfare Programs,” published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Social Forces, explores this issue, finding that “white Americans’ welfare attitudes are shaped by concerns about the status of their racial group in American society”:

[W]e found that white Americans who saw a demographic report emphasizing the decline of the white majority tended thereafter to voice greater opposition to welfare, and this effect was partially mediated by increased racial resentment. In our final study, we found that information threatening the white economic advantage resulted in increased opposition to welfare programs when whites perceived those programs to primarily benefit minorities, but did not affect support for programs portrayed as benefiting whites. These findings implicate racial status threats as a causal factor shaping whites’ opposition to welfare.

Wetts and Willer conclude with a pessimistic but realistic observation about how white racial resentment and white racism hurts Americans on both sides of the color line and how efforts to create racial equality will continue to spur, white backlash, as they have throughout American history:

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[A]ny progress toward equality may provoke resentment on the part of dominant group members, who may react politically in ways that undermine or even reverse progress to racial equality. In the case of American social welfare programs, this further implies that evidence of increased racial equality could exacerbate overall economic inequality. As whites attempt to undermine racial progress they see as threatening their group’s status, they increase opposition to programs intended to benefit poorer members of all racial groups.

I recently spoke with Rachel Wetts about her team’s research on white racial resentment, racism, Trumpism and the social safety net. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The discourse around poverty, “welfare,” and the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor in the United States is highly racialized. It is also gendered. How do these dynamics play out at present? 

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Robb Willer and I examine the sources of white Americans’ opposition to welfare. We find evidence that welfare backlash among white Americans is driven in part by feelings that the status of whites in America is under threat. These threats trigger heightened levels of racial resentment among whites, and in turn, heightened opposition to welfare programs that whites tend to perceive as mostly benefiting racial minorities.

This research shows us when and why whites support cuts to social safety net programs that benefit poorer members of all racial groups. While we don’t directly look at the processes that lead whites to perceive welfare programs as primarily benefiting minorities rather than whites, other research discusses how these programs become racialized. For example through media depictions that disproportionately portray welfare recipients as black (see work by Martin Gilens), or through racialized rhetoric of political elites that connects these policies to negative stereotypes of minorities (examples: Tali Mendelberg or Ian Haney López’s work on “dog whistle politics”).

White Americans on average have much higher incomes, wealth and representation in government than African-Americans, Latinos and other nonwhite groups. Given those facts, why would whites fear their racial group is losing status?

While whites continue to enjoy many of their historical privileges in this country, much public discourse about race — particularly in the period immediately following the election of Barack Obama — emphasized America’s increasing demographic diversity and the declining dominance of white people in this country.  Most prominently, after Obama’s election, political commentators were announcing the arrival of a “post-racial” era. In addition, many also highlighted the role of nonwhites in Obama’s election. While it’s true that whites on average continue to have political and economic advantages relative to African-Americans and Latinos, these larger social trends and high-profile events can create the sense that these advantages are potentially precarious or slipping away.

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Perceptions don’t always match reality. And members of the media and politicians sometimes frame or highlight social trends and events in ways that might make them seem more threatening to whites’ status than they actually are. For example, research finds that people in many countries, including the United States, strongly overestimate what percentage of the population is made up of immigrants.

What types of perceived threats by white Americans to their status do you examine in your research?  

We find that a variety of forms of perceived threats to the standing of whites in America lead them to withdraw support for welfare programs. These include perceived threats to whites’ political power, majority status and economic advantage. For example, we find that whites’ racial resentment rose in 2008, the same year of the Great Recession and election of Barack Obama, suggesting that perceptions of increased political power among minorities were leading whites to sense a threat to their group’s status. In another study, we found that when whites saw a threat to their economic advantage over minorities, they were more likely to want to cut social safety net programs, but only if those programs were portrayed as primarily benefiting minorities. Not if they were portrayed as benefiting whites.

This can help us understand the current wave of welfare backlash, which paradoxically began in the midst of the Great Recession. Typically you expect,  and research typically finds, that Americans are more supportive of government aid to the poor during economic recessions. But economic downturns can also amplify racial-threat effects, and this recession coincided with the election of the first black president. So we present evidence consistent with the theory that this led whites to feel that their racial status was threatened, and this helps explain rising opposition to welfare programs in recent years.

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What can this research tell us about the current political moment? 

First, the Trump administration has recently made several moves to cut the social safety net, such as cutting housing subsidies and proposing work requirements to receive food stamps. So, in this context, it’s important to understand the dynamics that drive welfare backlash. This research suggests that white voters may be supportive of measures to roll back social safety net programs — even when these programs could benefit them — as a response to feelings of threatened racial status and racial resentment.

Second, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the role of racial threat in shaping the current American political environment, so we wanted to test some of this speculation with research. 

You signal to a “welfare backlash” from white conservatives during the Obama years. The Trump election was a type of “white backlash” as well. How do those two dynamics interact? 

There were many factors that contributed to Trump’s election, but there’s one in particular that our work can speak to: white racial resentment. While we don’t directly look at Trump support in our research — we conducted these studies before his presidential campaign — his election was part of this historical moment where we find heightened racial resentment among whites, which we argue results from a sense that the status of whites in America is under threat. Other research, such as a new paper by Diana Mutz, ties these feelings of resentment and status loss among whites to support for Donald Trump.

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What kind of broader social changes might create this sense of threatened status, leading to heightened racial resentment among whites? In the new paper we argue that the historical period beginning in 2008 (and leading up to Trump’s election) saw a series of economic and political events that were likely to be perceived as threats to whites’ position in the racial status hierarchy: 1) The election of the first nonwhite president, a high-profile event with a lot of symbolic significance for signaling changing relationships between racial groups; 2) The political power of the steadily growing minority population in the United States, which was felt in the 2008 and 2012 elections to a greater extent than ever before, and highlighted by political commentators; and 3) The Great Recession.

Past work finds that economic downturns can exacerbate racial threats by giving whites the sense that they may lose out on more limited economic resources. So we argue that the feeling of threat whites experienced, resulting from Obama’s election and increased salience of the declining white population, were likely amplified because they occurred at this time of national economic insecurity.

So while our research can’t directly speak to sources of Trump support, it does examine what kinds of social trends can increase whites’ racial resentment, which other research increasingly shows is tied to support for Trump. In particular, there’s been a lot of talk about whether people supported Trump because of racial resentment or because of a sense of being left behind economically. Again, we can’t speak directly to the question of Trump support. But we argue here (based on previous research) that feelings of larger economic decline — on the societal level — can exacerbate racial threats, and these feelings of threat increase whites’ racial resentment. So rather than seeing economic hardship as an alternative reason some whites might support Donald Trump, our research would suggest that national economic decline was a factor contributing to whites’ heightened racial resentment during the historical moment leading up to Trump’s election.

Reading your article, I kept thinking about these ongoing debates on the sophistication and rationality of the American electorate. Considering your findings, is this further proof that white racial animus and the psychological wages of whiteness lead white voters to act “irrationally”? Or could it be that many white Americans are simply using a different calculus that goes beyond basic material self-interest in making political decisions? 

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The part of our work that speaks most closely to this is our finding that whites’ racial resentment rose in the midst of the Great Recession, leading them to increase opposition to welfare relative to minorities’ level of welfare support. Research finds that publics typically respond to economic crises “rationally” — with increased support for government action to reduce economic insecurity. In our paper, we find that minorities showed this frequently observed increase in welfare support in 2008, at the onset of a major economic downturn, but whites did not. This pattern can be understood as an across-the-board increase in welfare support in response to economic crisis being offset among whites by their response to racial status threat.

So, our paper suggests, as you say, that the answer isn’t simple. Our paper suggests that both a “rational” response to economic downturn and heightened racial resentment affected whites’ support for welfare programs during the Great Recession, leading to a heightened racial divergence in whites’ and minorities’ attitudes toward welfare.


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