As Congress debates new rules for food stamp recipients, race is one thing Republicans backing the proposal don’t want to discuss.
Legislators are currently discussing a bill that would reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, often referred to as food stamps. The reforms would create stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59, requiring them to provide monthly proof that they are working a minimum number of hours a week or are in a job training program. Those who don’t meet these requirements would lose their spot in the program, a change that could cut some $20 billion over a 10-year period.
Republicans support the new measure and argue that the program should be doing a better job of promoting self-sufficiency.
But as Vox’s Tara Golshan explained in April, SNAP already has work requirements, leaving some congressional Democrats and policy experts to argue that the legislation is written in a way that aims to kick people out of the program.
And during a House Agriculture Committee meeting in April, Rep. David Scott (D-GA) noted that race plays a part in discussions of food stamps and public assistance.
“The image of able-bodied men not working are African-American men in the minds ― not in everybody’s minds, but there are unfortunately people out there who have this mental disposition,” Scott, a black legislator, said. He argued that the bill was “filled with racial vicissitudes,” adding that the new work requirements played on stereotypes that cast African Americans receiving public assistance as lazy, despite evidence that more whites use public assistance.
Republicans rejected the suggestion that race had anything to do with the issue of poverty or food stamps, arguing that the issue was race-neutral. “I’m shocked when those kind of comments are made,” Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), told the Huffington Post. “I don’t think hunger really cares about your heritage or the color of your skin or anything else.”
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), meanwhile, told HuffPost that he had never heard someone connect race and food stamps. “I don’t have any reference to it being racial other than what David [Scott] said,” Conaway said.
African Americans are seen as the face of America’s welfare system. The numbers say otherwise.
Though some politicians deny a connection, the concepts of race and welfare have long been linked in public discourse. African Americans have often been inaccurately depicted as consuming the lion’s share of public assistance. And research suggests that inaccurate ideas about who receives welfare may in fact influence how white Americans feel about these types of federal programs.
Welfare, in this context, serves as a catchall term for a number of programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP, and Medicaid. The racial makeup of these programs varies, but for the most part, whites are the largest group receiving benefits, making up 36 percent of those receiving food stamps, 43 percent of Medicaid recipients, and 28 percent of those using TANF. And in 2017, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, found that public assistance pulls more whites out of poverty than other racial groups with higher poverty rates.
“There is a perception out there that the safety net is only for minorities. While it’s very important to minorities because they have higher poverty rates and face barriers that lead to lower earnings, it’s also quite important to whites, particularly the white working class,” Isaac Shapiro, a senior fellow at the CBPP, told the Washington Post last year.
Despite the fact that whites receive more of these benefits, people of color, particularly African Americans and undocumented immigrants, are often accused of being the largest groups using welfare. (There are actually several restrictions in place that keep most undocumented immigrants from accessing public assistance, but they still help pay for the safety net through taxes.)
And African Americans, despite being initially locked out of early public safety net programs due to racial discrimination, have come to be seen as the face of the program.
This was perhaps best captured by Ronald Reagan during his 1976 presidential campaign, when he framed welfare recipients as con artists. He noted that an unnamed woman in Chicago “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexistent deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps and welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.”
Regan was speaking of a woman named Linda Taylor, who was called a “welfare queen” in Chicago press. Her crimes were much more extensive than fraud — she was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking, among other crimes — but Reagan’s description of her contributed to the stereotype that black women con their way into and then improperly use public assistance, a stereotype that continues to affect discussions today. Some experts argue that the use of the term “welfare reform” is racially coded, serving as a dog whistle that positions public assistance as an unfair advantage given to minorities.
Recent research has shown that racial animus — especially the belief that African Americans and other people of color are failing to uphold American values like self-reliance — may have an effect on support for public assistance programs.
In May, Berkeley sociologist Rachel Wetts and Stanford’s Robb Willer released a study showing the findings of a set of experiments looking at racial attitudes on welfare. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote, they note that white opposition to public assistance programs has increased since 2008 — the year that Barack Obama was elected. The researchers also found that “showing white Americans data suggesting that white privilege is diminishing — that the US is becoming majority nonwhite, or that the gap between white and black/Latino incomes is closing — led them to express more opposition to welfare spending,” with white respondents supporting cuts to food stamps despite the programs largely benefitting white Americans.
And while the researchers caution that their findings don’t necessarily translate into actual voting behavior, Matthews notes that it fits into “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.”
The evidence suggests that race has long played a role in discussions around public assistance benefits and food stamps for decades. And given what we know about race and public assistance, it’s highly unlikely that this has changed.