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Racism undermines support for government spending

White Americans oppose a wide range of benefits because of the false perception that they would mainly help black people

February 16, 2016 2:00AM ET

Racism divides the American political system, strengthening opposition to social programs and reinforcing a plutocratic agenda. This is the lesson to draw from new YouGov data, which reveals that most Americans wrongly believe African-Americans make up a majority of welfare recipients and are net “takers.”

The survey, an Internet-based poll with a sample of 1,000 respondents, was performed between Jan. 23 and 25. I requested that YouGov researchers ask respondents questions about how they perceive government benefits across race and class lines, in order to examine how racial prejudice affects these views.

As political scientist Jason McDaniel and I have shown, racial resentment strongly predicts opposition to government aid to the poor and support for the Tea Party. Extensive political science research shows that racial animus strengthens anti-welfare views and motivates right-wing movements like the Tea Party.

Politicians and journalists fuel these racist narratives. President Ronald Reagan’s famous denunciations of “welfare queens” and a “strapping young buck” buying steak with food stamps offer quintessential examples of the former. As for the latter, political scientist Martin Gilens finds that “network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” In fact, “the elderly constitute less than 1 percent of the black poor shown in these magazines (compared with 5 percent of the nonblack poor) and the working poor make up only 12 percent of poor blacks (compared with 27 percent of poor non-blacks).”

According to the YouGov survey, 41 percent of all respondents say the government does “a lot” to help black people, but this disguises deep partisan and racial divides. For instance, 48 percent of white respondents say “a lot” compared to 6 percent of black respondents. Similarly, 23 percent of Democrats say “a lot” compared with a whopping 66 percent of Republicans.

On the other hand, only 27 percent of respondents say the government does “a lot” to help white people. Among white respondents, 16 percent said “a lot,” and 30 percent said government does “nothing.” Among black respondents, 68 percent said “a lot and 8 percent said “nothing.” And among Democrats, 43 percent said that the government helps whites “a lot,” compared with 17 percent of Republicans.

When asked what racial group made up the majority of welfare recipients, 26 percent of all respondents correctly said “whites,” 34 percent said blacks, 13 percent said Hispanics and the rest were unsure. Again, however, these divides break down along racial and partisan lines, with 36 percent of white respondents incorrectly saying black people make up the majority of welfare recipients, compared with 32 percent of Hispanic respondents and 23 percent of black respondents. Among Democrats, 25 percent said blacks make up the majority of welfare recipients, compared with 45 percent of Republicans.

These popular notions are at odds with reality. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, more than 40 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are non-Hispanic whites, while a quarter are African-American. A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study that examines the full range of government benefits found that “Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 64 percent of the population in 2010 and received 69 percent of the entitlement benefits.” They also found that African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population but receive 14 percent of benefits. These numbers are even more disturbing given that whites make up only 42 percent of the poor while African-Americans make up 22 percent of the poor.

It’s unlikely that when a GOP politician says ‘takers,’ he is trying to conjure up an image of a white construction worker who can’t pay taxes, as opposed to an unemployed black single mother.

The YouGov survey also had a unique set of questions that examine the “makers and takers” narrative that dominated the 2012 presidential campaign, after Republican candidate Mitt Romney was secretly recorded telling an audience:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

He was referring specifically to the 47 percent of Americans who supposedly don’t pay taxes, though that statistic is muddled by payroll taxes, state and local taxes and consumption and sin taxes. Republican supporters of Romney doubled-down on these comments by drawing a sharp moral divide between the “makers” and “takers” in U.S. society. However, the comments also serve as a subtle racial provocation to white conservatives, many of whom believe that these “takers” are all people of color. More blatant examples are former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s famous “food stamp president” comment, and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s claim that government spending goes to “blah people.”

These narratives appear to be deeply ingrained among white Americans, particularly among conservatives. In the YouGov survey, respondents were asked to say, “For the following groups of people indicated whether you think they tend to give more to society than they take or take more than they give.” On net, respondents said that working-class people (+62), middle-class people (+54) and women (+46) were givers. In the middle were white people (+18) and men (+13). The groups who were categorized as “takers” included Hispanic people (-4), black people (-25) and upper-class people (-31). Among whites, however there was a massive ideological gap on the question of whether black people were viewed as net contributors or net takers, with liberal whites saying black people were net contributors (+18), while moderate whites (-38) and conservative whites (-62) overwhelmingly said black people are net takers.

The data suggest that the makers and takers narrative likely isn’t about class, but about race. Among Republicans, black people are overwhelmingly considered “takers” (-53), while the working class is overwhelmingly seen as contributors (+56). It’s unlikely, then, that when a GOP politician says “takers” or refers disparagingly to those on welfare, he is trying to conjure up an image of a white construction worker who can’t pay taxes, as opposed to an unemployed black single mother.

The study makes it clear that American politics is still deeply driven by race. As Demos President Heather McGhee and scholar Ian Haney Lopez write, “In the post-war era, racism helped create the white middle class. Since the Reagan era, racism has helped destroy it.” They warn that progressives who worry about the weakness of the safety net often fail to appreciate that “racism has been the plutocrats’ scythe, cutting down social solidarity to harvest obscene wealth and power.” It’s clear that distorted views about who’s really benefiting from government spending remain widespread. For progressives to be successful, they need to fight these racist myths.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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