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Misdirections and Misconceptions: Welfare & Affirmative Action Part 1

By Edward Rhymes PhD  Posted by Edward Rhymes (about the submitter)   No comments
Message Edward Rhymes

In the wake of the bigoted and erroneous assertions by Pat Buchanan, I felt it necessary to clear the air, so to speak. This will be a two-parter so be sure to check back here to part two of this analysis of welfare and affirmative action.

There is a photograph that has become inextricably linked to the narrative concerning the Great Depression; a woman (white woman) sits staring into the distance with two (of her seven) children huddled around her; her face looks weathered, yet proud. This became the face of poverty during the Depression and it persists to this day. It created a narrative regarding the (white) poor that gave them a sense of dignity and nobility in the midst of their economic deprivation; overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control.

Contrast that image with that of the Black poor. Reagan used the stereotype of the Black “welfare queen” to great advantage. Over a period of about five years, Reagan told the story of the “Chicago welfare queen” who had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and collected benefits from “four nonexistent husbands,” bilking the government out of “over $150,000.” Even after certain members of the press pointed out that no such individual existed, he persisted in telling the story. Ronald Reagan considered the “Great Communicator,” was able to make the racist stereotype stick and thereby cementing the already-hardcore prejudices regarding the Black poor. Let’s face it, when one is asked to picture a welfare recipient they usually see a Black woman with too many children using her EBT card in the grocery store line (even though statistically there is no difference between the birth rates of families who need welfare and those who do not). Maybe they envision a Black person lacking the desire to work hard enough to get out of poverty.

Here we see how the diabolical combination of Democrat and Republican; liberal and conservative; (which by no means was a new phenomenon); Clinton and Gingrich came together for this assault on the Black community at-large. However, let us deconstruct the myths from which this initiative sprung.

Although at the height of the discussion concerning welfare reform most Americans believed that welfare was causing a financial hardship to many working-class Americans, the actual cost of welfare programs was about 1 percent of the federal budget and 2 percent of state budgets (McLaughlin, 1997) which is proportionally less than generally believed. During the 104th Congress, more than 93 percent of the budget reductions in welfare benefits came from programs for low-income people (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1996). Ironically, what created real financial hardship on working- and middle-class Americans was the rising percentage of American wealth gravitating to the top 1% of the population. Spending on AFDC or TANF, the programs normally referred to as welfare, totaled less than $500 billion from 1964 to 1994 (compare that to one year of Pentagon spending).


As the myth of the Black ‘welfare queen” took root; in the heat of the offensive against this nation’s poor and Black folk, the belief was that the majority of welfare beneficiaries were Black women when in fact children, not women, were the largest group of people receiving public assistance. Less than 5 million of the 14 million public assistance recipients were adults, and 90 percent of those adults were women. The majority of the welfare recipients were white (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1995). The breakdown of the ethnicity of the recipients were White (38 percent), followed by 37 percent African Americans, and 25 percent other minority groups (Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans) (McLaughlin, 1997). This reality flies in the face of what was (and still is) bandied about concerning Blacks and welfare.

Barbara Ehrenreich in her TIME piece titled, Welfare: A White Secret (12/16/91), stated “So our confession stands: white folks have been gobbling up the welfare budget while blaming someone else. But it's worse than that. If we look at Social Security, which is another form of welfare, although it is often mistaken for an individual insurance program, then whites are the ones who are crowding the trough. We receive almost twice as much per capita, for an aggregate advantage to our race of $10 billion a year -- much more than the $3.9 billion advantage African Americans gain from their disproportionate share of welfare. One sad reason: whites live an average of six years longer than African Americans, meaning that young black workers help subsidize a huge and growing ‘overclass of white retirees.’ In this same article she goes on to say “Whites, near poor and middle class, need help too -- as do the many African Americans, Hispanics and ‘others’ who do not qualify for aid but need it nonetheless.”

Christopher Federico, assistant professor of Psychology & Political Science at the University of Minnesota, in his essay Racial Perceptions and Evaluative Resources to Welfare (October 2005), details “a growing body of research that indicates that welfare attitudes may be strongly shaped by negative perceptions of Blacks. This raises questions about what might inhibit the racialization of welfare attitudes.

In this vein, a long line of work indicating that education leads to increased tolerance suggests that the relationship between negative racial perceptions and welfare attitudes may be weaker among the highly educated. However, recent studies suggest that the role of education may be more complex: While negative racial perceptions may be less prevalent among the highly educated, the relationship between these perceptions and policy attitudes appears to be stronger among highly educated individuals. The present study attempts to extend this finding by examining the hypothesis that the presence of a racial cue would be more (rather than less) likely to strengthen the relationship between negative racial perceptions and evaluative responses to welfare among college-educated Whites. Data from a survey-based experiment included in the 1991 National Race and Politics Study provided a clear pattern of support for this hypothesis.”

Furthermore, Mark Rank, professor of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also challenges the widely-held views of welfare being a program for Blacks (and other people of color) and that it is frequently passed on generationally: "About two-thirds of people who receive welfare are white. Overall, there are more whites than blacks. When we think 'poor,' we think 'city.' We forget there is severe poverty in parts of rural America." According to Rank's research, only 1 out of 4 welfare recipients had parents who also used welfare, while 1 in 20 recipients using welfare frequently grew up in a household that frequently used welfare as well.

To be sure, there are many programs that function for the same purpose and to the same end as welfare, but are not stigmatized in the same way. Let’s consider the roughly 30,000 cotton growers in America who receive billions of U.S. tax dollars every year through government subsidies. Economists say that without taxpayer help; some of America’s cotton growers would lose money growing cotton. And with price guarantees and a wide array of other payment programs, the farmers receive this layer of protection. The taxpayer makes up the difference between many cotton farmers operating at a profit or at a loss. Yet, this is not considered a “hand-out” or an “entitlement.” There are no questions being asked about what impact these programs will have on the self-esteem of farmers---and in my opinion, there shouldn’t be. On a related note concerning these subsidy programs is the assertion by some critics who contend that this generous financial support may be ruining the livelihoods of tens of millions of cotton growers in the poorest parts of the world.

Finally, during the run-up to welfare reform, a more expensive form of “entitlement” programs was largely being ignored… corporate welfare. According to a Boston Globe series on corporate welfare I 1996, the $150 billion for corporate subsidies and tax benefits eclipsed the annual budget deficit of $130 billion. Furthermore, that $150 billion price tag for corporate welfare was more than the then-$145 billion paid out annually for the core programs of the social welfare state---AFDC, student aid, housing, food and nutrition, and all direct public assistance (excluding Social Security and Medicare). Here is a breakdown of corporate entitlement programs from 1990 to 1994 comparing and contrasting the monies received to the number of layoffs:

Welfare Received


GM: $110,600,000


IBM: $58,000,000


AT&T: $35,000,000


GE: $25,400,000


AMOCO: $23,600,000


DuPont: $15,200,000


Motorola: $15,100,000


Citicorp: $9,600,000


For all this money that was channeled into the pockets of corporations, only Motorola added more workers during the four year period, while the others laid-off a total of 339,038 workers. Corporations are frequently cursed by the masses, but rarely challenged. The lobbyists and Congress not only made sure that this most expensive welfare program stayed in place, but helped it grow and expand as well.

In part two of this critique, I will analyze who affirmative action benefits the most; real and perceived racial preferences and the impact of privilege.

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Dr Edward Rhymes, author of When Racism Is Law & Prejudice Is Policy, is an internationally recognized authority in the areas of critical race theory and Black Studies. Please view his Rhymes Consulting Services website at (more...)

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