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A deracialization of welfare attitudes?

- February 5, 2009

Americans don’t like welfare programs — maybe never have, probably never will; don’t want to be on it, don’t think much of those who are on it.

For white Americans in particular, attitudes toward welfare and welfare recipients play into racial attitudes. Those who are less favorably disposed toward blacks tend to be less favorably disposed toward welfare as well. But the mid-1990s welfare reform has created a new information environment, with many more Americans than before considering it a success and relaxing reservations about it. A question, then, is whether the lessened hostility toward welfare has “de-racialized” welfare attitudes. Has the link between assessments of welfare and racial attitudes weakened in the wake of welfare reform?

That question is the focus of a recent study by Joshua Dyck and Laura Hussey (“The End of Welfare as We Know It?” Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (Winter 2008). Here, in case you’re too lazy to click on the link just above, is their answer:

bq. When white Americans think about welfare, they are likely to think about black Americans. The most prominent explanation for this phenomenon offered has been media coverage—newsmakers have presented welfare as an overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly bad social program. Most of the data used in studies that reach these conclusions, however, predate welfare reform. Since passage of the Persona) Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), welfare has lost its place among America’s most controversial issues. While there are many critics of the reform, many more declare it a success, and these elites are both Republican and Democrat. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of the public is favorably inclined toward the passed reforms. In this paper, we provide systematic evidence that the information environment surrounding welfare policy has changed. Given this, we pose the following research question: do negative attitudes about blacks continue to color people’s willingness to spend money on welfare programs? We address this question by examining the predictors of opposition to welfare spending in the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 American National Election Studies. The evidence suggests that despite the changing information environment, welfare attitudes are as strongly racialized in 2004, as they were a decade earlier.

In short, Americans now have fewer reservations about welfare than they did before welfare reform, but their assessments are just as structured by racial attitudes as ever.