Symposium: The Racial Politics Underneath the Welfare Question

In my last column, I discussed the rhetoric surrounding the Texas freeze, the relief going to Texas and Republican arguments about relief and redistributive government programs in general. I showed how the moral arguments of personal responsibility and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps are self-defeating and lead to stagnation. I also showed how the empirical arguments against these relief policies are predicated on misrepresentation of data and made as difficult to verify as possible, and are therefore fallacious.

However, this is not the full story behind the welfare and redistributive debate. It is also important to consider the consistent layer of racial animus underlying both the rhetoric and the actual effects of the policies that Republicans have advocated for since the Reagan era. Moreover, the cultural phenomenon of racial resentment, the idea that Black people are, in some nebulous way, just not hard enough workers, is a powerful influence on the way white voters vote, including white Democrats.

First of all, the effects of Republican welfare reform policy are racist. Take, for example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a major piece of conservative welfare reform that I mentioned in my last column. The very article I cited debunking the idea that the reform had achieved anything other than slashing benefits precipitously also has a large section on the well-documented racial disparities within the welfare system. It cautions both that the reform has disproportionately impacted non-white recipients and that the rhetoric of “personal responsibility” can be used to disguise systemic failings as individual failings, and thus effect a racist outcome without needing to use overtly racist language — or even while preaching equality.

Similarly, conservative narratives attacking welfare and redistributive policies are racist, sometimes explicitly so. The myth of the “welfare queen,” a favored rhetorical punching bag of Ronald Reagan that still influences us today is an almost explicitly racist narrative, first invoked as a nameless “woman from Chicago,” a city long considered a hotbed of Black crime, who made, according to Reagan, $150,000 a year by defrauding the government. Though Linda Taylor, the woman who spawned the narrative, was indeed guilty of welfare fraud many times over, her welfare crimes were incredibly overinflated, and she was only one person. Still, she became the false mascot for how poor Black people would game the system. Slate Magazine Editor Josh Levin writes in his book on Taylor, “[her] mere existence gave credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes about poor people and Black women […] If one welfare queen walked the earth, then surely others did, too.”

This brings us to the concept of “racial resentment,” which is a kind of prejudice that can be hard to recognize, because it “extends beyond simply disliking African Americans, or beliefs about inferiority,” reflecting a vague hostility to policies which benefit Black people. It is in part a response to the idea of systemic racism, positing that, now that the Jim Crow era is over, racism itself no longer exists except in isolated incidents, and the clear economic disadvantage that Black people experience is instead a result of them “violat[ing] traditional Protestant values,” such as individualism, family values and self-discipline. This feeling dovetails very well with narratives like the “welfare queen” myth or the Black “absent fathers” myth, and it allows people to be against policies that help racial minorities without feeling necessarily racist to themselves.

Racial resentment clearly affects voting behaviors and even perceptions of how well the country is doing in general. A 2020 study found that appealing to “racial attitudes” can motivate the vote choice of white voters across party lines (recall that Reagan carried 44 states in the 1980 election). It also affects perceptions both of how the president is performing and how healthy the economy is. This bore out in the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as well. Trump’s direct appeals to racism energized working-class white voters (although they did repel college-educated white voters). In fact, one study found that the widening of the vote choice gap between college-educated and high school-educated voters can be accounted for entirely by controlling for racism (particularly denial of racism) and sexism among their surveyed group. The emerging view of whiteness as an “embattled identity” also helps normalize explicitly racist rhetoric. Trump also appealed to “the American Dream” and “defending the suburbs” — both symbols strongly associated with white identity — and that contributed to his victory. Trump, like Reagan, attacked nonwhite people, particularly Black people (and in Trump’s case, Latinx immigrants), and promised to defend white identity. His voters responded. He also promised to uphold two specifically popular entitlement programs: Medicare and Social Security.

Republicans don’t mess with those programs, even as they rail against the expense of other social programs. The 2016 and 2020 Republican platform has sections labeled “saving social security” and “preserving Medicare and Medicaid.” Although it fails to mention welfare or other redistributive policies explicitly, it does say “Republican budgets will prioritize thrift over extravagance and put taxpayers first” (which, incidentally, is more or less the exact argument that Representative Chip Roy made against further Hurricane Harvey aid for Texans). It just so happens that Medicare and Social Security are the two programs widely perceived as serving white people. White voters, a demographic heavily courted by the Republican party, will, regardless of the truth of the matter, support programs which they believe benefit their ingroup and oppose programs which they believe threaten their economic status. Racial politics is inextricable from the debate over social welfare and economic relief.

The battle over redistribution, government assistance and disaster relief is ongoing and becoming more deeply partisan than ever — and just as racially motivated as ever. The recent Covid-19 relief bill, a bill that greatly extends unemployment benefits, authorizes direct payments to the majority of Americans and extends support for child care, cleared the Senate without a single Republican vote. Trump himself said in his CPAC speech (after spending 13 minutes railing against illegal immigration), “Well, part of it has to do with that, you know where it’s going, it’s going to bail out badly run Democrats, that is so much of it.” When he says “badly run Democrats,” he’s not only bashing Democrats, but also drawing a line between his supporters and large inner cities. Those same large cities are the most racially diverse parts of the country, and that implication is definitely a part of that statement.

We must remember the racial element deeply ingrained in the welfare debate. We can’t stop at refuting the surface arguments, because they are merely the shield for the racial resentment beneath, recognized or unrecognized. Being cognizant of that fact is the first step. Combating it is the next.