Posted 11 months ago on May 13, 2014, 5:29 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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How Bill Clinton's Welfare "Reform" Created a System Rife With Racial Biases
Tuesday, 13 May 2014 09:14
By Joshua Holland, Moyers & Company | Interview
It’s become a political cliché that “red” and “blue” states represent two Americas. But consider how states prioritize programs like health care and education — or how they administer their social safety nets — and the differences are very real. Federal policies help smooth out some of those differences — everyone is eligible for the same Medicare and Social Security programs when they get older — but conservatives have long campaigned to broaden the divide by turning over more and more federally administered programs to the states.
We can see how that might play out by looking to the past. In 1996, Congress “reformed” our existing welfare system in much the same way Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to “reform” Medicaid and other anti-poverty programs: they killed off the federal entitlement and turned the money over to the states to implement new models of welfare as they saw fit. It was a central plank in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” 20 years ago and also considered one of Bill Clinton’s signature achievements.
University of Minnesota sociologist Joe Soss spent a decade studying how those reforms shook out in the real world. With Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram, he co-wrote the book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, explaining how race became a determining factor in how states created their own welfare programs — and how that ultimately led to a system that’s rife with racial bias.
BillMoyers.com spoke with Soss last week. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Joshua Holland: Slightly fewer than one in three welfare beneficiaries are African-American. But it seems clear from the rhetoric around welfare that a lot of people think of it as a program for blacks. How did that view play into the welfare reforms of the 1990s?
Joe Soss: In the 1980s and ’90s, a kind of narrative had emerged that I call the story of illegitimate takings. It held that there were white people who played by the rules, and then there were people of color — and particularly black people — who were taking from those people in an illegitimate way.
At the time, there was a lot of talk of the pathologies of the underclass. And many believed that it was really these liberal programs that were to blame for what was seen as a kind of crisis of crime and disorder and sexual irresponsibility and welfare dependence and all of these things.
Bill Clinton ran on this idea that he was going to end welfare as we know it. And he was also going to get tougher on crime. He was attempting to reassure white voters, but once the Republicans took Congress, in 1994, Clinton found that he had painted himself into a corner, because of course the Republicans were willing to go much farther in this game than he was.
After that, for a public that had already learned to think of welfare as a black program — that had internalized these Republican calls to get tough on the welfare queens and whatnot — welfare now became center stage. The public was aroused, so something had to be done.
We looked at public opinion on welfare and racial attitudes, analyzing not just the overall trends, but studying the views of actual individuals over time. And what we found was fascinating. First, not many other factors predicted who would hold those kinds of views of welfare. It was pretty broad. But the one thing that did predict a negative view of welfare was negative beliefs about African-Americans, particularly a belief in black laziness. And also stereotypes of black women as being sexually irresponsible.
And what we found was that it wasn’t just that the people who had held these negative racial views all along who responded to these kinds of dog whistles but, even more striking, we found that as politicians talked more and more about welfare and what was wrong with the program, they moved people’s racial attitudes. The people who were most likely to start seeing welfare as a big problem were actually those who shifted from not having negative views of African-Americans to steadily responding to this discourse by beginning to see race in a different way and seeing African-Americans in a much worse light.
What’s remarkable about the general association of black people with welfare and handouts in the popular culture — that stereotype — is that it’s almost a perfect inversion of American history. For much of the 20th century, and certainly in the earlier history of this country, we had all sorts of race-specific programs that channeled benefits to whites and excluded everyone else.
So until very recently, in many ways we have this long history of a white-centered welfare state. But after that time, when victories were achieved that actually allowed for some equality of access to those programs, that very equality became the basis for saying, “Oh, this is all about African-Americans and it’s just a handout to this racially targeted group.” It’s a very sad part of American history, very troubling.