Welfare is a highly politicized topic in the United States. Each election year, voters are inundated with statistics testifying to the inefficiency and waste of welfare spending. These campaigns are often tethered to overt and covert discourses that galvanize opposition to this program. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy by Martin Gilens (1999) examines the complex reasons for such strong feelings of antipathy towards welfare. The theoretical interventions of this text highlight the centrality of race and racial attitudes in shaping public opinion.

Welfare VS. The Welfare State

The American welfare state encompasses a litany of programs designed to benefit citizens of all social standing. Education, social insurance, and means-tested programs are all examples of the government’s investment in the welfare state. Since the welfare state is often associated with the poor, one would expect the public to hold these programs in low esteem. Contrary to popular assumption, most Americans view these programs favorably and believe the government should increase funding therein. However, an eerie fact is that public support wanes when asked their opinions about the means-tested food stamps program. A helpful analytic here is Gilens’ differentiation between welfare and the welfare state. Welfare refers to “means-tested cash benefit programs [food stamps] available to able-bodied, working age adults” (p. 13), as opposed to the welfare state which can assist all citizens. A paradox thus arises: Americans believe the government has a responsibility to provide social benefits, but feel that welfare is an exception. The disjunction between welfare and other social programs of the welfare state is the point of departure for Gilens.

A Word on Method

Why Americans Hate Welfare relies on different methods to make its arguments about opposition to welfare. The first method used was survey data. Survey data was extrapolated from the 1991 National Race and Politics Study. This randomized digit-dialing survey was completed on a large scale (N=996). Gilens measured for the six following demographic indicators: age, sex, region, education, marital status, and family income. Liberal/conservative ideology, perception of blacks as lazy, and perception of welfare recipients as undeserving were also measured as predictors. Gilens amends this survey with the 1986 General Social Survey to understand the finer variations between demographic categories. The National Election Study (NES) survey was also utilized by Gilens to assess the impact of racial attitudes on welfare views in America. This survey included 10 questions, and was completed only be whites (total amount = 357). While the exclusion of blacks is logical considering the scope of Gilens’ project, it is still a limitation insofar as it reduces race relations to a myopic black/white binary.

Four Possible Explanations for Welfare Opposition

One of the strengths and contributions of the text is the review of four possible explanations to welfare opposition. According to Gilens, the following beliefs potentially account for the rejection of welfare: individualism, economic self-interest, racial attitudes, and the belief that welfare recipients are undeserving. Throughout the text, each of these arguments are examined to test if they withstand the strictures of scrutiny.

Although the political, economic, and social apparatus of America is entrenched in the logic of individualism, Gilens concludes that this ideology is not strong enough to account for opposition to welfare. Evidence for this claim resides in the fact that Americans strongly favor the social programs of the welfare state.

The economic self-interest thesis is based on the idea that middle-class taxpayers will oppose means-tested programs that benefit only the poor. Gilens rejects this idea considering survey data which shows that when Americans are given a choice between aiding the middle-class and the poor, they opt for the latter. Thus, economic self-interest is incapable of explaining opposition to welfare.

Using data from national surveys, Gilens shows that the two factors influencing opposition to welfare are racial attitudes and the belief that welfare recipients are undeserving. Whites who believe that blacks are lazy are more likely to believe that welfare recipients are undeserving. Thus, there was a generalized belief that blacks lacked a strong work ethic and did not demonstrate a genuine need. America’s hatred of welfare is driven by racial attitudes and ideas about the undeserving poor. For Gilens, Americans do not oppose welfare, they oppose the people they think are receiving benefits.

Negative Depictions of Blacks in the Media

Gilens also analyzed the coverage of welfare-related topics in sources such as Newsweek, U.S. News, and World Report. The period that Gilens reviewed was between 1950 and 1990. Gilens also scrutinized television broadcasts from three networks.Through content analysis, Gilens explores the ways recipients of welfare were portrayed at certain epochs in American history. Between 1950 and 1964, whites were the main population depicted as impoverished in the media. However, against the backdrop of increased migration from the South, higher rates of welfare enrollment, and the fight for civil rights, blacks became the new ‘face’ of poverty. Blacks were over-represented in media depictions of poverty between 1967 and 1992 at a rate twice the group’s national proportion. Moreover, blacks were portrayed in 70% of stories discussing poverty and 75% of those addressing welfare between 1972-73. Perhaps more important is the tenor of these representations. The general tendency was to frame whites as the ‘deserving poor’ while blacks were depicted as the ‘undeserving poor.’ The implication here is that the media strongly influences public opinion with regards to welfare, which ultimately impacts policy.