Why Some White Voters Are Souring on Welfare Programs

Why Some White Voters Are Souring on Welfare Programs

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Americans are becoming more critical of welfare programs, and researchers have found that racial resentment plays a significant role in the recent shift in attitudes.

In a paper published in the academic journal Social Forces and reviewed by The Washington Post, Rachell Wetts, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Robb Willer, a professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University, found that opposition to welfare programs began rising in 2008, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s and on the heels of the election of the first African-American president, with whites reporting the largest increase in opposition. The researchers theorized that race played a role, since whites were also reporting higher levels of racial resentment at the time.  

In order to test their theory, the researchers interviewed people to determine their attitudes toward welfare programs and found that opposition to those programs increased significantly among whites after they were presented with information about demographic changes in the U.S. that will lead to whites eventually becoming a racial minority. Similarly, opposition to welfare programs increased among whites when they told that such programs benefit non-whites the most; if they were told that the programs primarily benefit whites, there was no increase in opposition.

The results suggest that race plays a big part when it comes to attitudes toward welfare programs in the U.S. – something that many liberals have long believed but that can be hard to prove one way or another. Attitudes are notoriously hard to measure and political behavior is dauntingly complex, and there is always a chance that other factors are at play, the researchers said.

But the Post points out that “there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that white Americans who fear a loss of racial status are driving major shifts in policy and politics,” with racial resentment playing a significant role in everything from opinions on climate change to support for public health programs – and even opinions about presidential dogs.

Co-author Wetts told the Post that racial attitudes will likely plan an important role in key political debates over the next few months as the Trump administration pursues its agenda of reducing welfare spending by imposing new work requirements on Medicaid recipients, raising rents in public housing and slashing funding for food stamps.