The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country. -Otto von Bismarck, Revolutionary Conservative and the Father of the Welfare State
Channeling the Gipper on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich recently made comments about America’s social safety net that seem all too reminiscent of the Reagan Revolution’s “welfare queen” sensationalism. Speaker Gingrich confidently proclaimed, “And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
Following this theme, Senator Santorum was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” This is not the first time politicians have singled out African Americans when talking about poverty and government assistance. Sadly, this has become the norm in American politics.
Racial resentment and political ideology strongly influence public opinion on welfare and food stamps, and the polarization reaches far beyond divided views on poverty. Popular culture and the news media have played a central role, grossly over-representing African Americans in images and stories of the poor, effectively making poverty a racial issue in many Americans’ minds. All of this has contributed to growing misinformation about welfare and food stamps, leading far more people to oppose these specific programs than would actually oppose government-funded relief for the poor.
Due to the racialization of federal poverty programs by the media and opinion leaders, welfare and food stamps have become racially coded policies that trigger racial resentment in the minds of some Americans. Public opinion on these programs must be understood in these terms, because opinion on welfare and food stamps in particular doesn’t reflect opinion on government assistance to the poor in general.
To be fair, it would be wrong to say that everyone who opposes federal assistance to the poor is a racist, because the issue is far more complex than that; but it is also wrong when presidential candidates, like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, use the issue of welfare and food stamps to lecture African Americans on their plight, suggesting that they should demand jobs and not handouts. Their suggestions are simply untrue, and more importantly, they are unfair and offensive to the Black community.
The crux of this issue is not that African Americans, and other communities with high rates of poverty, are settling for government assistance instead of paychecks from stable employment. African Americans want greater access to affordable education, job training, and economic opportunities to address poverty in their communities, just like any other American would want for their community.
What’s more, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum don’t single out Whites, Hispanics, or any other race or ethnicity for their use of federal assistance, even though they make up the vast majority of the beneficiaries of these programs. For example, 35% of the recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are White, 10% are Hispanic, and 25% are of other races and ethnicities, compared to 22% of recipients who are Black. A full 78% of food stamp recipients are not Black.
African Americans make up 38% of the recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (America’s federal welfare program), while Whites make up 31.8%, and Hispanics making up another 24.8%. The vast majority of welfare recipients aren’t Black: in fact, 62% are of another ethnicity or race.
This is not just an African American issue, it is an American issue. The truth is that we shouldn’t be lecturing anybody for using government assistance. Poverty presents enough challenges to the less fortunate without Republican presidential candidates spouting divisive and racially charged misinformation about their work ethic and value.
The issue with welfare and food stamps is not the people using them, but the fact that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, there are millions of Americans who struggle to feed themselves, or provide for themselves or their families. In fact, 49% of food stamp recipients are children, and 35% are elderly or non-elderly disabled Americans. Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich are so out of touch with the reality of poverty that they must invent their own facts to fill in the gap between their hyperbole and the truth.
In addition, there has been poor job growth for more than a decade, and a majority of the income growth in America has gone directly to the top income earners. The vast majority of Americans have seen their wages remain stagnant, despite the growing cost of living in America. The manufacturing jobs that once employed many of today’s welfare beneficiaries and food stamp users are now being permanently shipped overseas. The real issue is the government’s failure to address the actual causes of poverty.
We should be doing everything in our power to accelerate domestic job growth, job training, and access to higher education. We need to make economic opportunity available to all people, so that welfare and food stamps don’t become long-term solutions for Americans dealing with economic hardship. But, we must also keep our social safety net solvent, because it performs a vital function in our society. We must help those who are the victims of the ebb and flow of the free market, but this must be coupled with aggressive efforts to get them back to work if they are able.
Welfare and food stamps are intended to aid in times of economic hardship, to restore certainty to the lives of working Americans. The beneficiaries of these programs need new opportunities in the job market before they can return to a path of economic self-reliance. Over time, the system will need reform to remain solvent for the long term; but we should not mistake thoughtful reform as a blank check to kick people off of welfare and food stamps, just because a small number of recipients abuse the system.
It would be reasonable to expect serious contenders for the presidency to recognize the facts of poverty in America, but oftentimes that isn’t good politics in the modern Republican Party. Either Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich actually believe what they say, or they believe it will increase their appeal to the angry conservatives that make up a large percentage of the Republican primary voters. In either case it is an unfair and dishonest way of ascending to the presidency, and shows all voters the emptiness of their vision for America.