Fri 6 Feb, 2009
Tags: Racial inequality, Racial prejudice, Racial stereotypes, Welfare
A new study suggests that even in the aftermath of the welfare reform of the 1990s and the resulting disappearance of welfare as a hot-button political issue tied to race, attitudes of white Americans towards welfare are still heavily influenced by negative stereotypes about blacks.
It is well known that racial prejudice and stereotypes among white Americans, while usually less blatant than in the past, still persist. For instance, nearly a third of whites will agree with the statement that most blacks are lazy, and about half say that they believe racial inequality is caused by the failure of blacks to work as hard as whites.
As one consequence of this prejudice, it has long been recognized in political science, and in conventional wisdom, that many white Americans tend to think of blacks when they think of welfare, and that negative attitudes towards blacks (especially stereotypes about work ethics) in turn shape the attitudes of those Americans towards welfare policies.
This racialization of welfare has been tied to the portrayal of the poor, and of welfare recipients in particular, as black citizens by both politicians and the media. As a result, prejudice towards blacks has been shown to be a significant predictor of opposition among whites to welfare spending, and a primary reason why voters are much less likely to support “welfare” than they are other forms of government assistance, including “aid to the poor.”
Since the 1990s, however, welfare reform has caused the portrayal of welfare and welfare recipients by politicians and the media to improve significantly. Politicians are much more likely to describe welfare as a successful system which provides a social safety net while moving citizens into productive jobs. The public has more positive views of welfare, and the issue has largely disappeared from the media or been framed in more positive ways.
This new paper produces evidence that in this changed information environment, in which welfare recipients are portrayed in ways contrary to negative stereotypes about blacks, negative attitudes about blacks continue to affect white opposition to welfare spending as strongly as before.
The disturbing implication drawn by the authors is that stereotypes about welfare recipients and about black work ethics are durable, and as a result, the racialization of the issue of welfare spending has become durable, as well, long after such stereotypes cease to be reinforced in the public arena.
This paper was authored by political scientists Joshua J. Dyck of SUNY-Buffalo and Laura S. Hussey of the University of Maryland and published as “The End of Welfare as we Know It? Durable Attitudes in a Changing Information Environment” (Public Opinion Quarterly, Winter 2008).