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Fear of Coming Minority Status Drives White Opposition to Welfare

New research shows whites are less supportive of government benefits if they believe the recipients will primarily be people of color.
Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, on May 10th, 2018.

Liberals tend to assume white opposition to government assistance programs is driven by the belief that it mainly benefits minorities. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman repeated the notion on Friday, writing that opponents of a strong safety net "tap into racial resentment, convincing white voters that new programs will only benefit Those People."

Confirming that assumption has proven tricky, leading some scholars to question its validity. But a new study presents evidence of this racially charged reasoning, which is triggered by reminders that minorities are making up an increasing percentage of the population.

Reminders of that demographic reality provoke fears of lowered social status, increase racial resentment, and spur whites "to oppose programs they perceive as primarily benefiting social minorities," said senior author Robb Willer, a professor of sociology and social psychology at Stanford University.

Willer and lead author Rachel Wetts of the University of California–Berkeley call this "welfare backlash." In the journal Social Forces, they warn that it will increase the likelihood that "policies restricting or curtailing welfare programs" will be enacted in the coming years.

Wetts and Willer begin by analyzing survey data. They report responses in the nationally representative American National Elections Studies show that the attitudes of whites and minorities toward welfare "diverged beginning in 2008." That coincided with a rise in racial resentment among whites, which began that same year and continued through 2012, the last year they examined.

The year 2008 is remembered for two momentous events: the onset of the Great Recession, and the election of the first African-American president. Barack Obama's ascendancy was widely attributed to "the growing electoral power of racial minorities," which highlighted the nation's changing ethnic make-up. The researchers argue this unsettling news, "coupled with experiences of economic hardship," increased whites' racial resentment and opposition to welfare programs.

They tested this notion with two online studies, the first of which featured 151 United States residents (75 percent of whom were white). Participants were presented with "one of two charts describing trends in the population share of different racial/ethnic groups in the U.S."

One featured data covering the years 2000 to 2020, "when white Americans' population share is expected to remain about 60 percent." The other featured projections up to the year 2060, at which point that number is expected to fall to around 40 percent.

After answering questions about the chart they saw, participants indicated their level of agreement with two statements: "We are spending too much money on welfare" and "Public assistance is necessary to ensure fairness in our society." In addition, they were tasked with cutting $500 million from the federal budget, and asked how much they would reduce spending in nine specific areas—one of which was "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Welfare)."

Finally, they expressed their level of agreement with a series of statements designed to uncover racial resentment. These included "If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites" and "Over the past few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve."

The results: White participants who saw the first chart (showing whites remaining the majority) proposed cutting $28 million from federal welfare spending, on average. Those who saw the second chart, which showed whites will become a minority, proposed cutting $51 million. Members of that latter group also "reported significantly greater opposition to welfare, and higher levels of racial resentment," the researchers report.

"This effect was unique to whites," the researchers add. "We found no evidence that whites reported more conservative opinions on non-racial issues."

The second study featured 236 U.S. residents (80 percent white), who saw one of two charts. One showed that the racial income gap was widening, as whites recovered from the recession while minority income declined. The other showed the gap was shrinking, as white incomes were falling while those of other races remained steady.

They were then given information about two government assistance programs. Half were told the first program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) primarily benefited blacks and Latinos, while the second (unemployment insurance) mostly benefited whites. The others were told the opposite. All then indicated their level of support for each program.

"When a welfare program was portrayed as primarily benefiting whites, threatened white participants reported almost identical support for welfare as unthreatened white participants," the researchers write. "The same threatened white participants who expressed opposition to a program benefiting minorities on average expressed greater support for a program benefiting whites."

That's pretty conclusive evidence. "Racial status threats," the researchers conclude, appear to be "a causal factor shaping whites' opposition to welfare."

The results are consistent with studies showing a perceived loss of status increased the white vote for Donald Trump. Even before the 2016 election, research found many white Americans were more likely to support the Republican presidential candidate if they were reminded that, in a quarter-century, people of color will make up a majority of the population.

This new research suggests that perceived decline in status—and the racial resentment it engenders—predates his presidency, and will very likely outlast it.